(2016) Drama (A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Nathalie Love, Cameron Protzman, Victoria Bruno, John Billingsley, Finnegan Bell, Zoe Nanos, Laura Foley, Finn Roberts, Laura Wiggins. Directed by Mike Mills
Sometimes we take for granted the women in our lives; our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our friends. We are shaped inexorably by them, our development as people strengthened by them, sometimes in ways we don’t even know. That’s doubly true to those of us who have had single moms.
Dorothea (Bening) is a daughter of the Depression who got a late start on motherhood; she was 40 when she had her son Jamie (Zumann). She’s 55 now, and living in Santa Barbara (and now is 1979). Jamie’s dad is out of the picture and Dorothea helps make ends meet by hosting boarders in her fixer upper of a house – William (Crudup) who is doing most of the fixer upping and Abbie (Gerwig), a Bohemian photographer with maroon hair who is recovering from cervical cancer. Into this mix add Julie (Fanning), a childhood friend of Jamie’s whose home life has become so tense that she regularly spends the night in Jamie’s bed although she refuses to allow anything sexual to happen, much to Jamie’s chagrin. In fact, Julie is fairly promiscuous and has no compunction telling Jamie about her sexual experiences which makes Jamie feel even worse.
Jamie is at an age where he is growing more distant from his mother whose every action seems to piss Jamie off (if he realized how much freedom she gave him compared to what the rest of us were getting in 1979 he might not have been quite so prickly) and he’s beginning to push back in an effort to leave the nest at least spiritually, leaving without permission to join friends at punk rock concerts in L.A. or to go skateboarding with friends.
Realizing that she’s no longer able to get through to Jamie, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help instruct her son in how to be a man. Abbie engages Jamie in discussions about female orgasms and gives him hardcore feminist manifestos to read. Julie’s assistance is a little more subtle but she seems to be warming up to the idea of a more romantic stand with Jamie.
But as most things do, things fall apart as Jamie, incensed that his mother seems to be giving up on him, grows more and more irritable – getting into fights with friends and with his mom. Something’s got to give.
Director Mike Mills based Dorothea on his own mother albeit with Bening’s own stamp put on the character. Much of what transpires in the film also transpired in Mills’ own life. Dorothea is a bit eccentric to be sure but no more than most moms of the day, or any other day for that matter. Mills realizes that quirky doesn’t have to be done in the indie film sense where people do outrageous things just for the sake of being outrageous; here the quirkiness is part of their DNA, an expression of who they are and they make sense; Dorothea chain smokes and invites people she barely knows to her home for dinner. William talks about energies and karma and is a 70s hippie with a mechanical bent. Julie reads Judy Bloom and has lots of sex and wants to keep Jamie at arms length so they can remain friends seemingly without seeing what it is doing to him. Abbie dances like a fiend to the Talking Heads, takes pictures of everything (presaging the millennial obsession with taking pictures of even the most mundane elements of their lives) and generally being the 21st century avatar in this little family.
Jamie appears to be the most normal of the lot but ostensibly he’s the stand-in for Mills himself so it’s understandable if Mills gives Jamie a bit less of an edge, although he isn’t lacking in teen angst. Zumann actually does a pretty great job here; he’s never annoyingly precocious but seems pretty much like most teens I know – wears their hearts on their sleeves but much smarter and much worldlier than we adults tend to give them credit for. Zumann is a name to remember.
Bening delivers a performance that is strong without being flashy. Her character smokes incessantly and frets as mothers do but she’s generally calm even when there’s chaos around her. She can be a little quirky but at the core of the character are the things most of us have in common; love for our children and an overwhelming desire for them to be happy and safe. Bening portrays the character’s inherent dignity ably and allows her individuality to shine through. She missed out on a Best Actress nomination this year but she certainly was in the running for it.
This is the Southern California from the late 70s that I remember. Mills does a great job of recreating it, not just in fashion, cars and set design but in atmosphere as well. There are times when it feels like the characters are pontificating a bit much more than normal humans do, but other than that there’s not really a lot to quibble about here. It’s a good, solid slice of life movie that illustrates the difficulty of growing up into manhood and what a treacherous path it can be. It also shows that the gulf between men and women doesn’t have to be as necessarily wide as we think it is so long as we’re willing to listen to each other. It’s a lesson that was valid in 1979 and it’s a lesson that’s valid now.
REASONS TO GO: Annette Bening just kills it. The era is captured beautifully.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a little pretentious at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexual material and some nudity, a fair amount of profanity some mild violence and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crudup and Gerwig also appeared in the film Jackie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Fantastic
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House