Review / ’20th Century Women’ (M) *** and a half

FILMMAKER Mike Mills has crafted a complex, convoluted observation of life, the universe as it stood in middle America in 1979 and 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) coping with a life environment populated chiefly by his 55-year-old mom Dorothea (Annette Bening); aspiring photographic artist and cervical cancer survivor in her mid-twenties Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), attending therapy sessions for teenaged girls.

The main adult male protagonist is William (Billy Crudup) whose main purpose is to reflect about the conversations and behaviours of the women.

The film’s structure moves back and forth through time among events and ideas as its events recall Dorothea’s background and anticipates her future. A divorcee guiding Jamie’s emotional and social development in an era when those issues were undergoing major changes that today are routine but then were revolutionary, she’s also a chain-smoker, now accepting what it’s doing to her health, who began in the era when women regarded smoking as sophisticated.

In a way, “20th Century Women” is a message film as Dorothea considers her expectations of a life approaching its close and Jamie tries to do the same with his life. It has no plot in the accepted sense. Life goes on. Jamie, Julie and Abbie deal with their burgeoning sexuality. Popular music styles undergo paradigm shifts reflecting youthful rejection of the past. Dinner-table conversation topics defy convention – women discussing orgasms or having never had any; menstruation – some characters pronouncing the “u”, others bypassing it; the purpose of punk rock and its connection with violence.

It’s interesting stuff, inviting filmgoers’ responses more cerebral than visceral, without great tension or conflict yet ultimately satisfying. And what’s its message? About cigarettes, yes. But on a broader canvas and with not a little subtlety, it’s reminding us that youth and growing up are boot-camp training for old age’s obsolescence. Think about it.

 At Capitol 6 and Palace Electric

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