Thursday, January 26, 2017

20th Century Women

***1/2 out of ****

Director Mike Mills caught my attention during my college years when I found a deep fascination with filmmakers interacting with the music world. Mills had filmed music videos for one of my favorite bands, Air, and was working as a graphic designer, often producing album covers.

After coming across a dvd of short films he'd made, I wished that he would follow in the footsteps of people like Spike Jones and Michel Gondry to make feature films. When he finally did this through the film adaptation of the novel, Thumbsucker, I was glad that the movie was good but a little disappointed that it lacked the dreamy quality of his short works.

His second feature, Beginners, was his first step into the autobiographical when he reflected on the memories of his father (Christopher Plummer) during his final years when he had terminal cancer and came out as a homosexual. That film also spliced in a few childhood memories of a peculiar mother, which seemed a little distracting to the narrative.

Maybe if he'd known he would make a film about his mother through 20th Century Women, he may not have bothered with teasing us with her odd behavior in the last film. Annette Bening picks up on Mills' last representation of her and despite the change in actress, we know it's the same woman.

Mills' place as a feature filmmaker is continuing to develop as this movie continues his knack for detached anthropological representations of social behavior without judgement but incorporates new editorial and stylistic choices that give this film a very unique tone.

Set in southern California in 1979, the film puts emphasis on three women in the life of a boy in his early teens: His single mother (Bening), her tenant (Greta Gerwig) and his best friend/love interest (Elle Fanning).

Many of the scenes take place in the large semi-dilapidated home where the mother rents space to Gerwig's feminist photographer character who has an affinity for new wave and punk rock music. The other tenant is played by Billy Crudup as a hippie handyman/grease-monkey who is always working on some corner of the home or one of the many old cars parked on the property.

Like A Christmas Story, Crooklyn, The Tree of Life and many other autobiographical films recalling youth, the film functions in more of an episodic fashion than one that tells a whole story. A lot of the story is a tribute to mother who keeps her emotions in check but has decided to find loose ways to manage her son after his distant and sometimes alarming youthful explorations seem dangerous and disturbing to her.

The movie seems to convey admiration for a mother who has a very open mind, but seems far from a cliche. She doesn't pretend to understand the ever-changing world of young people, but is trying so very hard in all the right ways. When he's out of the house, she listens to his records and she goes out to the local band venue to see how people respond to this music.

In the meantime, the son's attraction to his best friend becomes more intense. She stays the night regularly but will not have sex with him -even though she does quite often with boys for whom she has no emotional connection.

A great amount of the film becomes about a boy's search for manhood through feminism, as Gerwig's character guides him through literature, art and music that will allow him to understand women in ways that his peers will not.

Like Wes Anderson's quirky (and sometimes obnoxious) tendency to cut away to short biographies of his characters in the middle of a scene, Mills goes further by plunging into sincere and relevant stories that seem so absorbing that we may fail to notice when these mini-bios have caught up to the present and we're back in the loose narrative of everyone living in this partially-functioning home. The only complaint I have, is that these interruptions happen a few too many times. 

The title is defied by stopping to tell stories of the film's men, when I thought their backstories could have been shared through dialogue only. This isn't a bad thing but it's the only element that gives the film a direction that is as lacking as the film feels on the surface.

The cinematography is colorfully natural and the score combined with killer soundtrack selections make the movie a hypnotic experience. Very good film

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