There’s an art to making good movies about nothing. The common thread in the best of them (Michelangelo Antonioni‘s early ’60s films are the ultimate expression of this form) is a sense that something is churning even if nothing is really “happening” in terms of decision, desires, events or consequences. L’Avventura, L’eclisse and La Notte say to viewers in a thousand small but significant ways, “Are you sensing what’s wrong here?…are you feeling the absence of something?”
Mike Mills‘ 20th Century Women (A24, 12.25) is about an absence of strong interest in what you’re seeing on-screen. I got through it, but I never felt caught up or swept along or anything along those lines.
But please, don’t let me stop you. One of the blogaroonies thinks it’s a charmer, and that Annette Bening may end up as a Best Actress contender. So far 20th Century Women has racked up an 88% and a 74% from Rotten Tomates and Metacritic, respectively.
It’s basically a lefty, leafy period piece, set in 1979 Santa Barbara, about a thoughtful, laid-back, somewhat fickle character based on Mills’ mom (Bening). Dorothea is a 50ish independent-minded divorcee who smokes too much, rents out rooms, holds down a drafting job and tries to get through to her son (the Mills stand-in, played by Lucas Jade Zumann, who’s supposed to be 15 but looks physically closer to 13) as he makes his way through early puberty.
Uproxx’s Mike Ryan has observed that Dorothea is like Frances McDormand‘s Elaine Miller, the headstrong mother of William Miller, in Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous, except that 20th Century Women is told almost entirely from Dorothea’s viewpoint and not the kid’s. That’s fairly close to the mark.
The characters and situations are semi-diverting as far as they go, but nobody ever really does anything and nothing ever heats up. The film muses, meditates, dithers, meanders, piddles along, Mills’ screenplay is all character study. It has no story, no tension, no arc, no pivot point, no climax and no conflict to speak of. Just a lot of semi-interesting dialogue, and a few better-than-decent scenes and performances (especially from Bening, who’s landed her best-written role since The Kids Are All Right).
It’s partly the fault of the setting. Santa Barbara is a great place to chill and enjoy, but nothing interesting ever happens there except for Roger Durling‘s annual Santa Barbara Int’l Film Festival. It’s like what Orson Welles said about Switzerland in The Third Man — a tidy and bucolic little country from which the only noteworthy contribution has been the cuckoo clock.
A friend “appreciated” the meditative tone of 20th Century Women. “I liked the connection between the small moments and the historical aspects,” he writes. “But otherwise I agree [with your viewpoint]. Bening is a knockout but what else is new? I love how she dresses and acts like Amelia Earhart, and the large crumbling house and the various characters. It has stuck with me. As flawed as it is.”