Though I have mixed feelings about Mike Mills’ quasi-autobiographical family dramedies, I really liked 20th Century Women because it didn’t make a big deal of the central character’s iconoclasm. His latest film, which is not based on Mills’ own life but rather a stray comment his young son once made, similarly benefits from a light touch even if it makes a bit too much of the burden of parenthood. Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny, an unmarried radio journalist who is summoned by his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), to take care of her 9-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), when Viv’s ex-husband and Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), has a serious mental breakdown and Viv has to travel from her home in Los Angeles to Paul’s new home in Oakland to get him the care he needs. It’s not a major problem for Johnny. He and the voluble Jesse get along like gangbusters, but Johnny is in the middle of a major project—interviewing children across the country about their hopes and dreams—and he proposes to Viv that he take Jesse along with him.
Road movies can be trite, especially those that invole pre-adolescent boys and unmarried early middle aged men, and Mills doesn’t avoid a lot of the usual pitfalls. In fact, his main running joke is that whenever Johnny turns around in a crowd Jesse is missing. As a leitmotif the joke emphasizes Jesse’s hyperactivity, which doesn’t come across as being debilitating, and Johnny, who recognizes Jesse’s native curiosity, tries to keep up with it as best he can, but even he gets exhausted sometimes. Though he tries to address Jesse as an equal rather than as a child, he runs up against a wall whenever Jesse asks questions about his parents and why his father is the way he is. Johnny can only explain so much. As the pair zig-zag from California to Johnny’s home in New York to New Orleans, they invariably get on each other’s nerves and Johnny’s patience is both admirable and frustrating, since he sees parenting as a noble calling but knows he’s only in it for a short stretch. Jesse understands this as well, and tries to take advantage.
Mills is certainly a great dialogue writer, and the conversations between the two are some of the most naturalistic and intriguing you’ll ever see in a movie between an adult and a child, but otherwise the movie doesn’t go anywhere, even if its protagonists are always on the move. The title is from one of Jesse’s poems, but it also kept echoing in my head as I watched the film.
Opens April 22 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
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