Sunday, 25 June 2017

On DVD: "20th Century Women"

I've been a little resistant to Mike Mills since he stepped up from pop promos to feature directing: both 2005's Thumbsucker and 2010's Beginners struck me as inherently flimsy propositions, compensating for a lack of real substance with an irksome grab-bag of kooks and quirks. I have to say his latest 20th Century Women went some distance towards winning me over, not least for having found a new angle on the messily familiar business of coming-of-age. At the new film's centre, there is a mother and her son - immediately swerving American cinema's yawnsome dads-and-lads fixation - and furthermore a mother and son separated by such a pronounced age gap that it makes it even harder for each to figure the other one out.

So on one side, we have Annette Bening's Dorothea, 55 years old as the film joins her in 1979: unmarried and staunchly independent, with a ready supply of books and a cat to keep her company in bed anight. By day, Dorothea frets about the fate of her boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a fifteen-year-old who's been tempted in from the fringes of the punk scene - and it could well be that she fears dying before her offspring has reached full maturity. As a protective countermeasure, she recruits her apartment block's other inhabitants, and various local hangers-on, to pick up some of the parental slack and help nudge the kid in the right direction - a motley crew that numbers womanising handyman William (Billy Crudup), ethereal gal-next-door Julie (Elle Fanning) and artsy photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig).

It starts out about a boy, then - and those trademark Mills shots following young bucks on skateboards will come to accrue an extra layer of meaning as Jamie navigates the sharp bends and dangerous curves of teenage life - before becoming an extended treatise on what makes a man, exploring those diverse influences brought to bear on this boy (for whom we could conceivably read the writer-director himself, a mere thirteen in '79) at this specific moment in history. Thus does 20th Century Women stave off the weightless quirkiness of Mills' earlier film work: you witness it growing and deepening with every encounter, driven as it is by characters who feel very much like products of their times and circumstances.

William's shaggy 'tache and attitudes, certainly, scream Santa Barbara '79, no matter that Crudup wears them effortlessly; yet what Mills really seems to be getting at is a moment when, say, erratic birth control was giving way to more reliable forms of contraception, and the inflexible tenets of feminism's first wave were being challenged by new ways of thinking. (Would that everything were as timelessly pleasurable as the menthol cigarettes Dorothea is seen to puff away on - though the film acknowledges that even these nasty weeds would change the course of several of these lives.) He's helped considerably by his performers, capable as they are of fleshing out even this script's tinnier moments. Whole sequences are organised around the maternal warmth in Bening's smile, and the twinkle and pride in her eye; she has a cherishably crafty moment attempting to sneak a smoke as the hippy-dippy Crudup is teaching her to meditate, a gag softened into a greatly more expressive character beat. 

Likewise, Mills finds a vulnerability in Gerwig that we've never seen before, grounding the actress's usual tics and neuroses in something more real and believable yet - for Abbie, too, has mortality on her mind. The debate between her and Dorothea speaks to a marked difference in the way the generations approached the issue of liberation, and how the feminism of '69 was surely not the feminism of '79 (as that, in turn, is surely not the feminism of 2017); underpinning the potentially bland, sunkissed harmony is a melancholy, retrospective awareness that this moment, like its union of oddbods, cannot endure. The apparition of outgoing President Carter, giving his "Crisis of Confidence" speech on Dorothea's TV, clinches the argument: this was the point where the last utopian vestiges of community yielded to the aggressive, divide-and-conquer tactics of corporate capitalism. After this, you were out on your ear, and on your own.

This is the world 20th Century Women emerges into, and it wouldn't surprise me if some started tutting and huffing at a straight white dude like Mills co-opting key feminist writers and thinkers to make his points land; a less voguish, but more valid criticism would be that some of the lessons being learnt here - like Crudup teaching Bening the difference between Black Flag and Talking Heads - can feel a tad easy, although I'm willing to concede that not everybody has had the benefit of a John Peel education. If the film is autobiographical, it does explain the ambient, New Agey tendency in Mills' back catalogue, making it an instruction manual in how to look at these films as much as a repository of useful life advice. Yet it also offers something more far generous and affecting besides: the rare spectacle of men and women at least trying to understand one another, a pursuit as necessary and worthwhile at this point in this century as it was at any time in the last.

20th Century Women is available on DVD tomorrow through 20th Century Fox.   

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