I am wary of “slice of life” movies because they often are tied together with the barest threads of theme and usually are just a bunch of scenes without anything connecting them. Not always, but often, and the realm of indie movies is rife with them. That said, I’m a bit less worried when such movies are historical or based on someone’s experiences instead of wholly fictional, but really, you never know how they’ll turn out.
20th Century Women is written and directed by Mike Mills and is very loosely based on his own childhood and teenage years. The movie presents a life mostly narrated by teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a series of scenes of vignettes of his life on and near 1979. It’s a slow boil at first. Jamie lives in a house with his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) and their two tenants, zany punk girl Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and hairy handyman William (Billy Crudup). Jamie also has a closer and platonic neighbor friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who is damaged and in her own state of confusion.
There is a strong theme of transition and change, focusing on the end of a decade as the age of the hippies flickers and dies as America moves into the realm of computers and Reaganism. Dorothea is a woman of contrasts, with her own demons and complexities, a fierce desire to raise her son right yet worried she cannot truly know him. So instead she asks Abbie and Julie to provide an alternate parental force, helping Jamie in the place he cannot show to his mom.
Thus begins a series of mini-adventures and stories focusing on Dorothea and Jamie, their dramas and comedies of errors. Jamie loves skateboarding but is confused about women, so Abbie starts teaching him about feminism and punk music. Dorothea is lonely so she considers the concept of finding a man, albeit temporarily. The movie tries to tell a story of how Jamie was raised in a crucial, critical point in his life.
There are mirrors of course to Mike Mills’ real life, and a sort of “realism” approach to the movie in terms of the style. Some scenes feel almost like a set of home movies interspersed with stylized scenes with more interesting and dynamic cinematography. What soars here is the acting of these characters, but what doesn’t is the writing. Sometimes the dialog has an incisive and almost poetic quality, other times is more clunky and meandering.
The movie also takes a while to do anything interesting, and the characters themselves are ciphers for essentially half the film. That makes it harder to be invested. But you can still focus on the great work of Annette Bening as the older woman who doesn’t want change or Elle Fanning as the one in the middle of changing everything. It’s not a movie I really feel deserves a lot of in depth analysis, but I appreciate the concept: the director writing love letter to his mom and the important women in his life.
It could be a lot worse, but hey, I even had a few positive things to say about The Guilt Trip. At this point, I’m more curious about the older work of Mike Mills, as this one was 50% slow and 50% interesting.
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