20th Century Women (2016)

Viewed January 7th

This semi-autobiographical film from writer/director Mike Mills captures his adolescence in late-1970s Santa Barbara. 

20th Century Women puts three generations of independent-minded women plus one enlightened handyman in a fixer upper house with young Jamie in order for him to learn the lessons that will go on to shape a sensitive but very cool and culturally sophisticated straight white male feminist who will make hip music videos and post-Wes Anderson twee Americana films such as 20th Century Women. 

It has the texture of a good novel.  Each of the women seems to be well-rounded and complex, it mixes pathos and humor, and from its fin-de-siècle vantage point in seems to have something to say about nothing less than the rise and fall of the American century. Furthermore, it seems to be onto something in the way it merges that novelistic/literary storytelling texture with uniquely cinematic devices and pacing techniques. However, the key word is "seems." It never really pushes beyond that literary texture. It never actually does anything with what it's signaling about itself and its aspirations. It merely suggests to the viewer that the characters are complex or that this is the type of movie that has things to say about such and such and hopes it can convince you it's actually happening (something Wes Anderson, to his credit, is able to overcome in much of his work). Beyond that, the visual inventiveness and sheer cinematic pluck of the movie gradually winds down in its second half into more conventional visual storytelling so that by the end, it feels like it could be an episode of Modern Family. 

What it does have going for it is Annette Benning as Dorothea, Jamie's aging, chain smoking mother. It's an indelible performance and I felt emotional in her final moments. That is to the credit of Benning as an actress and a star (and to Mills' ability to work with her to get her there) more than it is to the film's script or ideas.