Writer/director Mike Mills — no, not the bass player for REM; he makes better movies — has made a simultaneously preachy, smarmy, and condescending (yet nostalgic) vision of the ‘70’s heady Punk-fuelled age that gave way to the Me Generation of Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s. Infuriating by design, this rudderless story can’t even locate its protagonist.
Annette Bening is miscast as Dorothea Fields, a 55-year-old single Santa Barbara mom to an equally miscast Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, a punk-loving high school misfit in search of his testicles. Although Annette Bening may be only 58 in real life, her character here reads as much older — so much for any suspension of disbelief.
Dorothea charges her David Bowie-loving artsy tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig in full Lena Dunham mode) with mentoring 15-year-old Jamie on how to conduct himself with girls. Jamie’s biggest problem is his despicable 17-year-old best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who thinks it’s cool to sneak into Jamie’s bed every night without ever giving him any nookie. Julie prefers rough trade, a fact she is only too happy to inform Jamie and others in attendance at a dinner party hosted by Dorothea. There isn’t a single likable character in the movie, with the possible exception of Billy Crudup’s inveterate slacker William, who happily takes advantage of whatever skirt happens to fly up on his behalf.
For an ostensibly feminist agenda-driven drama, “20th Century Women” misses its egalitarian target completely. Everything is overstated with ridiculous dialogue and cynical hindsight that wasn’t available at the time that music fans with taste listened to the Talking Heads while less sophisticated children preferred Black Flag, a band lacking in all manner of musical competency.
The movie pats itself on the back so hard that it can never get its bearings. The filmmaker’s sue of still photo images from Punk’s glory days — with insufferable accompanying voice-over narration — is akin to putting Punk in a Plexiglas box in a museum. Mills fails to transmit Punk’s romantic qualities that served as the impetus and background music for a lot of teenage heavy petting in the late ‘70s.
Mike Mills should acknowledge his place in society by not using the name of REM’s bass player. REM’s Mike Mills got there first. Variety critic Owen Gleiberman had the audacity to place “20th Century Women” on par with Lisa Cholodenko’s far superior (similarly themed) 2010 film “The Kids Are Alright,” which coincidentally also starred Annette Bening. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Rated R. 119 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)
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