A24 118 minutes R
This film brings back memories of an era of changing lifestyles and attitudes circa 1979. It explores the changes in women’s roles and their self identity in terms of feminism which took off in the 70’s. The plot bounces from one situation or relationship to another, freestyle. Writer/Director Mike Mills (Beginners) says this is semi-autobiographical about he and his Mom. But he made this Annette Bening’s movie all the way.
The actress gives an intimate portrayal, worries and all, of a single Mom, Dorothea. She is a depression era child who had her son at the age of 40. She’s used to a certain way of life but is trying to accept women’s lib, the computer age and new music which is changing all at once and fast! It’s hard for her to keep up.
This Mom is desperately trying to figure out how to handle the awkward growing pains of her skateboarding, teenage son, Jamie, played very naturally by Lucas Jade Zumann, as he navigates his own identity and relationships with girls. It’s also about how he relates to his Mom and how she is trying desperately to relate to him as a friend, but stay his Mom.
Bening’s expressions are fascinating to watch as she deals with situation after situation. Some of her reactions are funny and self deprecating, and some are serious and sad. They range from the crisis of watching her car spontaneously burst into flames in a parking lot with nobody near, to her son’s near-death-stunt with his friends.
You can almost see what she’s thinking. But then she takes a hard left and with dialogue from Mills’ script, reacts in a surprisingly laid back manner about something important, or uses humor when you least expect it. Sometimes she becomes agitated and nervous when you think she’ll be under control. Her mood swings would be hard for anyone to take. Jamie is a really good kid, but his frustration shows. Tough age and situation.
Dorothea is trying to raise her son in a communal atmosphere, drawing off those living in her big historic Santa Barbara house which needs a lot of work. She gathers advice from her boarders, including master renovator, William played by Billy Crudup. He does the work to get a break on the rent. Then there’s quirky punk photographer, Abbie with crimson colored hair played by Greta Gerwig. She’s got her own female health issues. Jamie’s best bud is older teen heartthrob, Julie, played by Elle Fanning. Julie is not a boarder but sleeps over almost every night with Jamie without Dorothea knowing it. They are very close, but have a platonic relationship which he would love to change. They are so close and surprisingly intimate without the sex. She’s a very mature teen in many ways.
Dorothea is trying to find out who she is while trying to figure out how much to let go to let Jamie grow up. She’s really what we now call, a helicopter Mom, but in 1979, freedom was important for self discovery, not only for him, but for her. This Mom is also jealous that she can’t constantly live vicariously through him and see him in every situation he experiences. She says to Abbie, “You get to see him out in the world. I never will.” That’s sad.
Mills makes a point of showing how objects were important to people in the late 70’s, before the age of cell phones and internet dependence. He brings it home politically, too, showing Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis in Confidence” speech pointing out how gaining things has become more important than creating communities.
The sounds of music were changing, too, from rock to punk, which threw a lot of Moms for a loop. Dorothea is much more in tune with romantic songs like “As Time Goes By ”from the movie Casablanca than Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” even though that’s more like what she’s having.
Smoking was more accepted then, too. Dorothea smokes Salems, “the healthy cigarette” non-stop. Everybody smokes, even young Julie. Don’t worry. They were all smoking camomile cigarettes on the set for the film, but it’s still disturbing to see them puffing away in light of our present anti-smoking world.
The actors portray an ensemble of the most unlikely people to be together trying to help Dorothea raise Jamie. Gerwig is quirky enough that you can feel compassion for her and her journey to find herselg. Crudup is a sweet and helpful hippie wannabe. And Julie is the teen exploring freedom and womanhood in a different way than Dorothea. None are bad people. They’re characters in a specific time and place captured by director Mike Mills in a nostalgic film incorporating his own childhood. It’s a slice of life we could relate to since our parents were depression children and hovered over us, too. This is not a great movie, but it is another one of Bening’s great performances. And it deals with the same 20th Century issues women still deal with today, in the 21st Century!