Just because a film is based upon true-life events doesn’t always mean it should in fact be made. I recently viewed 20th Century Women, which arrived on Blu-ray and DVD on March 28. Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann, this film is based loosely upon director/writer Mike Mills’ own mother and upbringing.
The setting is 1979 Santa Barbara, California. What a fascinating era in American history and a time to be alive if you were a teenager. The feeling of change was definitely in the air. America was just on the cusp of Reaganism, and feminism and punk culture were becoming more rampant among the youth. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
Enter typical teenager Jamie’s world (Zumann). What makes Jamie’s story unique is the fact that he’s being raised by a single mother in her mid-50s. Dorothea (Bening) has managed to be the center of Jamie’s world up until now. The two have always been able to talk, and it doesn’t seem Jamie has ever felt “held back” by not having a father in his life. However, Dorothea begins to feel as if she’s in over her head raising Jamie because she doesn’t comprehend the youth counterculture of the late ‘70s.
She doesn’t understand the words being screamed in the loud, angry punk music Jamie listens to or why he risks his life for no apparent reason by holding his breath in a contest with some of the other kids who hang out at the skate park. And perhaps most significantly, she doesn’t know how to talk to her son about his sudden interest in girls or his journey to becoming a good man. What does it even mean to be a good man in this new world that’s beginning to leave the Baby Boomers behind?
Dorothea decides to enlist in some help raising Jamie from her neighbors – artsy, punker Abbie (Gerwig), father figure/able-bodied handyman William (Crudup) and girl-next-door-that-Jamie’s-in-love-with Julie (Fanning). I understand the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” but I’m not sure why Dorothea thought these three individuals would make appropriate choices in child-rearing, considering one is a girl not much older than Jamie, the second is a feisty Bohemian who’s never had any children of her own and the third is a bit of a womanizer. Pretty odd choices if you ask me. I suppose they do provide a form of stability in their own unique way and give Jamie more a sense that he’s part of a family. However, I’m of the opinion that perhaps these individuals do more harm than good to Jamie’s adolescence.
The film has an interesting premise, but never quite manages to pique enough interest or make one feel truly invested in the characters and their fates. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a horrible film. The cast manages to do a decent job with the material they’re given, and it did really feel like the era it represents. I also loved the artsy ‘70s era images that are juxtaposed in-between vignettes. I think the thing that bothered me most about it was that it seemingly lacked a message. I suppose free love and the concept of transitioning from childhood to adulthood in a time when America was also transitioning were central themes, but it never feels like they’re fully explored. The only thing it does manage to do is paint a bleak picture regarding relationships. Are real-life people really as damaged as these cinematic ones? I hope not.
The Blu-ray/DVD offers a few special features if you’re interested in that sort of thing. There’s audio commentary from writer/director Mike Mills, a “20th Century Cast” Featurette and a behind-the-scenes featurette about “Making 20th Century Women.” They’re fine bonus feature fodder, but nothing remarkably special or out of the ordinary. If you’re in the mood for an odd, artsy film or one that’s an homage to the ‘70s, 20th Century Women is a nostalgic, albeit bumpy, ride down memory lane.