If you buy the characters, you’ll probably enjoy 20th Century Women. I didn’t, and it left me cold. And a little bored.
The trailer for 20th Century Women promises one of those quirky, funny, charming, alternative-family-centred Californian arthouse flicks along the lines of the hugely enjoyable The Kids Are All Right, which tracked the domestic ups and downs of a family parented by a same-sex couple. Annette Bening was terrif in that little gem as one of the two Moms, and she also shines here in the role of middle-aged single mother Dorothea bringing up her 15yo son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Indeed, her performance and Zumann’s are the highlights of an otherwise disappointing film.
The setting is Santa Barbara, 1979. Dorothea rents out rooms in her spacious old house to mechanic William (Billy Crudup) and hip budding photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig). They form a makeshift family around Dorothea and Jamie, along with 17yo neighbour Julie (Elle Fanning). Friends with Jamie since childhood, Julie secretly sleeps over in his bedroom most nights, but insists that their relationship remain platonic.
Dorothea looks to Abbie and Julie to assist in guiding Jamie along his path to manhood, and they take on the task with the fond diligence of sisters. This is somewhat implausible, especially in the case of Abbie, who unaccountably seems to have little else to do for a woman in her twenties.
Through Abbie, Jamie is introduced to punk, the youth sub-culture of choice for the hip-n-happening (although its most exciting early phase was over and it had all but collapsed into a fashion statement by 1979 – just sayin’). She plays him records by The Raincoats, takes him to punk clubs, teaches him how to attract women through stupid playing-hard-to-get games, and verses him in feminism.
Julie mentors him in holding a cigarette between his fingers (really?) and being “cool”, but her most profound teachings are more personal – she breaks his heart.
The rather uneventful, meandering and overlong narrative leaps forward in time on occasions, with various characters informing us in voiceover how they end up. One tells of the time and cause of her death. Voiceovers from beyond the grave have been done to death (sorry), but there’s a sense here that writer/director Mike Mills is impressed with his own cleverness. That smugness pervades the dialogue throughout.
That is not to say the script is poorly written. It’s full of astute observations, bon mots and wit (most of the humour fell flat for me, but others at the screening found plenty to laugh at). Thing is, there’s a sense that the writer’s hand is intruding, hovering above the lines of terribly-well-crafted-and-thought-out dialogue. The characters are not fully freed to be themselves. And that makes it difficult to believe in them, or to emotionally engage with them or the film.
Mills has modelled Jamie on himself as an adolescent and Dorothea on his mother. It’s no surprise, then, that these are the most integrated and believable characters in the film. But did Dorothea HAVE to have a newly lit fag in her gob in every bloody scene? She’s a chain smoker. We get it!
Julie is hard to like. There’s a joylessness about her, and a lack of life. At 17, she’s already weary of the world of men and sex, which is largely unexplained and doesn’t ring true. She really doesn’t seem very worldly. Elle Fanning’s rather listless performance doesn’t help, but she isn’t given a lot to work with.
Billy Cruddup does OK with William, but the character is not developed much past sketch. William’s best point is that he breaks stereotype (Dorothea observes somewhat offensively that his “dumb mechanic hands” become something other when he works the clay making pots).
I found Abbie annoying, and never more so than in a dinner party scene in which she has her head laying on the table due to period pain, then surfaces to take the topic public, pronouncing menstruation as “menstration” again and again. Then there’s her out-of-time “dancing” – arrgghh! (Why is it that those without rhythm so often advertise it by throwing themselves extravagantly around the dance floor to some beat of their own?)
20th Century Women has had largely glowing reviews. Bemused, I sought the opinion of my erstwhile Boomtown Rap co-reviewer, Karen, whose parting words perfectly sum up my assessment: “Characterisation, meh, story, meh, difficulties overcome, meh.” It’s good not to feel entirely alone.
File under Californian arthouse lite.
Australian release date: 20th Century Women showing from 1 June at Luna Leederville and Luna On SX.
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