Writer/director Mike Mills’ award-winning Beginners was a mostly factual study of his late father, and 20th Century Women, his third feature, is all about his mother, as well as the end of the ‘70s, feminism, radical politics, punk, love, pain and sex.
Often warm and funny, this isn’t a rosy-hued view of those long-ago days, as demonstrated by this often-quoted line from Annette Bening’s Dorothea (Mills’ mum’s proxy): “But now it’s 1979, and nothing means anything.”
Dorothea is a 55-year-old single mother in the Santa Barbara of ’79. She unreliably narrates (as do most of the characters at various times) about the depression she lived through, the increasingly chaotic world around her, her fears for her teen son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and whether or not she’s enough to “usher” him through to his next phase of life. She turns to her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a Bowie-haired cancer survivor, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s childhood friend but now promiscuous and messed-up. Handyman William (Billy Crudup), another tenant, is enlisted to help too, despite his fondness for hippie talk that doesn’t fit the cynical times.
Abbie tries taking Jamie out to punk clubs (when Dorothea hears him play Black Flag she asks, “They know they’re not good, right?”), and he becomes further mixed up in Julie’s life, which leads to much horniness, a fight with a schoolmate about clitoral stimulation and the realisation that life is untidy. Just like Mills’ movie.
But Mills’ quietly wonderful and Oscar-nominated script, the tremendous performances, a cool period soundtrack (Talking Heads, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Devo, The Buzzcocks, even a bit of Bowie) and more certainly make up for it – and hey, it was the ‘70s. Apparently Mills wanted to make this to offer his son a sense of who his grandmother was, and let’s hope the kid appreciated it too, because this is 2017, and nothing means anything.
Rated M. 20th Century Women is in cinemas now