This Oscar-nominated ensemble piece, set in 1979, portrays a diverse group of friends, all trying in their own way to find their place in the world. It captures the peculiar feel of the era perfectly, including the trend toward personal self-awareness and the rise of popular feminism, the latter playing a significant role in the story. It is a perfect amalgam of comedy and drama, capturing elements of both in a naturalistic manner, although film is neither riotously funny nor melodramatic: the drama is very much at the human level, and the comedy mostly in the form of irony and an underlying sense of the absurdity of life.
Annette Bening plays Dorothea, the ageing single mother of a beloved fifteen-year-old boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Feeling ill-equipped to provide the needed guidance to her son as he approaches adulthood, she asks her neighbours, members of a small, informal community of friends, to fill in as the need arises. Although they resist accepting the role of surrogate parent, all of them have an influence on Jamie, whether intentional or inadvertent.
Dorothea is pleased at first with the support and affection Jamie receives from their circle of friends; but she becomes concerned when he is exposed to more complex and potentially painful new ideas and experiences: unrequited love, radical feminism, graphic information on the female body. With the help of her friends, she comes to accept that he is strong enough to absorb and learn from whatever he is presented with and to make his own decisions, although sadly, she never comes to fully accept herself to the same extent – because of the constraints of the era in which she grew up, it is implied. Her determination to unreservedly accept her son is sometimes as comical as it is brave; one of the film’s quietly humorous scenes involves Dorothea making a dogged effort to appreciate the punk music Jamie enjoys.
The plot is slightly unstructured, following the lives and interactions of the multiple characters in a free-form way. The story is realistic and has some sharp edges, but director/screenwriter Mike Mills does not shy away from emotion or even sentiment when the plot calls for it, and the story is filled with warmth and optimism even in its harsher moments. An able, well-chosen cast take on the challenge of this delicate, character-driven story with highly individual performances which nevertheless mesh perfectly. Any viewer should be able to identify with the flawed and true to life characters which are the heart and soul of this film.
For further viewing:
Milton’s Secret takes on some of the same themes as Twentieth Century Women, but in a more benign, family friendly format suitable for older children.
The simple story of three generations reconciling and learning from one another, centred around the trials of 11-year-old Milton, is enlivened by a charming performance by veteran actor Donald Sutherland, and a great 1960’s soundtrack.