Modest in presentation, gentle in tone but high-minded in its goal, this prosaically titled movie from Mike Mills is streets ahead of any other screen offering at the moment.
Set in 1979, it has Dorothea (Annette Bening) living in a rambling, run-down mansion in Santa Barbara with her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman), two boarders, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Cruddup), who is constantly renovating, and a free-range teenager, Julie (Elle Fanning), who spends nearly all her time there. The house is a work in progress, like Dorothea’s unordered life.
With her most productive years behind her, she turns her attention to Jamie’s development and engages the girls to be his ‘minders’, to help her make him the good man that she desperately wants him to be. Jamie, naturally, believes he has no need to be guided and it is this depiction of chain-smoking, politically correct Dorothea as the interfering ‘mom’ that makes her the overbearing, annoying woman that she at first seems to be. But you soon realise that, like the rest of us, she is floundering in an age that she cannot feel part of. She even listens to Jamie’s Black Flag punk album and, in one lovely scene, tries to dance to the music with William.
There is a lot of dancing in the movie, but it’s not choreographed and syncopated – instead it’s like what you or I might do when alone in the our room. Not a lot happens – Jamie gets drunk in LA, Julie has sexual misadventures, Abbie deals with a health scare – but it doesn’t matter, for the story is driven by character and relationships rather than action. It is a lament for the disregard for caring and sharing that is left in the wake of what we call progress (Jimmy Carter’s ‘loss of confidence’ speech is used to profound effect). Reflective voice-overs give a sense that the future is already written, for all of us, and that the best we can hope to do is understand our place in the history that we are making.