Tropic Sprockets / 20th Century Women

By Ian Brockway

Mike Mills’ latest “20th Century Women” is a character study as much as it is a time capsule of 1979. Rich in period detail, music and color, the film boasts solid performances by Annette Bening and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann.

Dorothea (Bening) is a single mom living in a half-completed house with her son Jamie (Zumann), and two tenants, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). Dorothea is at an emotional standstill. She can’t seem to reach out to her sensitive but reticent teen son. The extent of their communication is a shared reading of the stock market in the newspaper. 

The film is largely told from Jamie’s perspective with vivid details of the and place — Santa Barbara. Most sharply we see the Punk movement with all of its energy, combined with a sense of insecurity from politics, specifically a somber and cautionary speech from President Jimmy Carter. 

Jamie is adrift. His father ran away and his childhood friend Julie, (Elle Fanning) has no interest in being romantic with him. Dorothea enlists the help of Julie and Abbie in the hopes of guiding Jamie to be more extroverted. Abbie is an art school grad, smitten with David Bowie, and a cancer survivor. Julie is bored and at a stalemate with her own mother and takes pleasure in hedonism.

Rather than have a definitive point of view, the film takes segments from each of the five characters, Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie, Julia and William to make an impression of the late 70s.

Several parts of the film are nearly virtuosic: people hop and scamper frantically on dance floors, seemingly out of touch and machine-like as Jamie lopes about with a normal gait. Film clips of Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisquatsi” are seen coupled with the family car as it races down the California highway, perhaps alluding to Ken Kesey’s “magic bus” or a scary and sinister future brought on by ecstasy, technology and shallow politics.

The film score is a character in itself with stirring music by The Talking Heads, Black Flag and Devo.

Though the film hints at precarious times ahead, the overall tone of “20th Century Women” is a cheerful eccentricity that reaches a zen whole. A bohemian family lives, laughs and converses together despite the strains of the year 1979. While some might pine for a more visceral melodrama, others should take it for what it is: a colorful and understated journey between a mother and son.