The world sure is a crazy place right now. Anyone seeking respite from it for a couple of hours would be wise to check out this little charmer of a movie. It has an advantage in that it's set in a nice place and a more innocent time: Santa Barbara, 1979.
Although a lot happens, in brief bursts of stories about different characters, there's no specific plot. Instead this is a series of peeks into the lives of a quintet of people, two of whom are mother and son, with the other three kind of revolving around that duo. There's also the fact that these are all folks that, bad habits and all, we like. Let's meet them.
Dorothea (Annette Bening) is 55. She's a happy free spirit who some would call slightly eccentric. Her husband left her long ago, and she shares her creaky, rambling home with her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who is 15, longs for a girlfriend, and already has it in his mind that he wants to grow up to be a good guy. Dorothea and Jamie are close, partly because he's already a good guy and partly because she's a pretty cool mom. Yes, they have their differences, as when he accuses her of saying everything is fine even though she's really sad and alone, and when she questions him about why he does dangerous things with his friends. But, hold on: Is she sad? Are the things he does dangerous? Whatever, they always work things out.
Then there are the others: Glum, mysterious Julie (Elle Fanning) is 17, smokes too much, and regularly climbs into Jamie's second floor window at night to sleep in his bed ... but only sleep there, as they are best of friends, and she wants it to stay that way. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), at 24, is as free-spirited as Dorothea, but definitely goofier. She shoots photos and dances around to punk music. The other guy in this group is William (Billy Crudup), who doesn't reveal his age, but is always around when something needs to be fixed.
So, how many people actually live in this house? Abbie and William are tenants, and Julie is a regular visitor. OK, that's cleared up. But what's here to keep viewers interested? Simple: A study of relationships or, put more clearly, of people relating to each other. When Dorothea realizes that there are indeed a few things that could be straightened out between her and her son, she asks Julie and Abbie for some advice, and gets it. When Abbie, one night, completely out of the blue, asks William if he'd like to come up to her room to fool around, he bursts out with an excited "Yeah!" When, soon after, she announces that she needs "a story" from him before they go too far, his surprised and funny reaction is "Really?" When Jamie comes home one day to find Julie already in his room, crying about the way some jerky guy treated her, a tenderness and longing to comfort her comes over him. But, no, they must remain just friends.
While there are plenty of separate stories to go around, the film's structure revolves around Dorothea having conversations with the other characters, and eventually having all of those folks talking to each other, sometimes separately, sometimes in a big group. A lot of information about each of them is delivered via them taking turns narrating a back story -- just to viewers -- about one of the others, with some of those stories revealing some tragic baggage that many of them are carrying around.
But at its heart, this is a coming of age story about Jamie, tied into his mom's story, that of a middle-aged woman trying to figure out where time went and how she got where she is. Amidst brief shout-outs to David Bowie and the book "Our Bodies, Ourselves," we get a small, insightful film with lots to be entertained by, lots to think about.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
"20th Century Women"
Written and directed by Mike Mills
With Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann