Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 2016. A24, Annapurna Pictures, Modern People, Archer Gray. Screenplay by Mike Mills. Cinematography by Sean Porter. Produced by Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, Youree Henley. Music by Roger Neill. Production Design by Chris Jones. Costume Design by Jennifer Johnson. Film Editing by Leslie Jones. Academy Awards 2016. Golden Globe Awards 2016. Gotham Awards 2016. Independent Spirit Awards 2016. National Board of Review Awards 2016. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2016. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2016. Washington Film Critics Awards 2016.
Fifteen years old and crossing over rapidly from childhood to the earliest budding of adulthood, Lucas Jade Zumann is constantly in the thrall of his magnificent mother (Annette Bening), a woman as proud of her unconventional attitude to life as she is worried about its effect on her son. It’s Santa Barbara in 1979 and, following her divorce, Bening is raising Zumann in their giant, rundown house with boarders Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup helping out with the rent. Free-spirited but never irresponsible, she tries to see her son’s adolescent rebellions as opportunities for growth and encourages him to get the male guidance that Crudup can provide while asking Gerwig and her son’s best friend (Elle Fanning) to assist her in bringing him into an awareness of the Modern Woman in the hope that it will bring him into a stronger awareness of himself. Zumann retreats from this hands-off technique, feeling his mother is unnecessarily worried about not being enough for him, and it sparks a coming of age tale for both mother and son: he experiences a longing for independence while she learns that an openness to modern, late-seventies west coast culture can’t change the fact that we are essentially ourselves despite our willingness to adapt. Having characters narrate their futures sounds like the worst kind of narrative pretentiousness (it actually sounds like the grating techniques that Mills’ partner Miranda July uses in her much more calculated films), but there’s no feeling of manipulation at any point in this deeply satisfying movie; Mills has Bening’s character being an “older” mother (she was forty when she had her son, a much more unusual situation in her time) colour her attitude towards parenting (such as her painful observation that she knows her son less and less with each passing day) but doesn’t dictate it in an obvious manner. The visual poetry with which Mike Mills tells this story has the smart and sensitive intricacy that his dialogue does, gorgeous, bright images that emphasize human figures in the centre of large, colour-blocked frames bringing the era to life in a poignant and thought-provoking way. Bening brings her charisma to a role that only she can play without ever succumbing to a cheesy Oscar moment, her whole body prepared to express delight but also blessed with those fascinating, hard corners that have always given her a formidable but never alienating edge, while the supporting cast, particularly a mesmerizing Fanning, fill out the experience beautifully. A seasoned movie watcher will be thrilled to watch a story whose direction they can never predict.