There is weight in the charming 20th Century Women and a seriousness that keeps it from blowing away like a load of styrofoam peanuts in the wind. That weight comes from the realization of how remote the seemingly near past actually is.
This is Mike Mills’ third and best film (after Beginners and Thumbsucker), and honors the director’s mother as a woman whose life is bound by the last century. The title isn’t too lofty, as the film commemorates the time’s ideals, fascinations and naiveté.
Dorothea (Annette Bening) owns an old house stuffed with ferns in Santa Barbara. Her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), has an easy time in school, though he’s occasionally bullied as an art fag because he listens to Talking Heads; his life can be symbolized by the long, lazy slaloms on his skateboard down oak-covered streets.
Boy children in single-mother homes used to be fretted over—without a paternal model, surely they’d turn gay? What one loves about 20th Century Women is that the movie takes the opposite pole, insisting that a young man can learn a lot from hanging around women. Jamie has a sleepover pal, Julie (Elle Fanning), who isn’t interested in him sexually. She gives him lessons to make him cool, and advice like “Guys aren’t supposed to think about what they look like.”
Jamie is also friendly with twenty-something lodger Abbie, played by the delightfully gawky Greta Gerwig. Abbie is the patient zero of punk rock in Santa Barbara, a student in NYC who had to come back west with her LPs (the movie certainly earns its needle drops of Talking Heads, DEVO, Buzzcocks and the Clash) after a medical crisis.
The film is sweet on the past and the transition from hippie twilight to the kind-of, sort-of dancing at punk clubs. It may not be the movie about the cusp of the ’80s, but it gets so much so right and serves as a bittersweet reminder of a lost world.
’20th Century Women’ opens Friday at Summerfield Cinemas,
551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.522.0719.