Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) had her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) when she was forty, and it remained the most significant event in her life. She was born in 1924, and we catch up with her and her son in 1979, just as the seventies were about to turn into the far more conservative eighties, when bohemians like her were going to feel out of place in the America of Ronald Reagan. But all that was in the future, and when Jamie looks back on his relationship with his mother from the perspective of the twenty-first century, he sees this year as the most significant, when he felt he would truly get to know her and their bond would only be strengthened. But did it turn out that way?
Director Mike Mills got autobiographical in a manner that indie filmmakers of the new millennium were wont to do, or at least semi-autobiographical in a style that was following on from the examples set by the likes of Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach, the twin pillars of how to arrange and present this sort of thing. Not that Mills was slavishly aping anybody, this remained very much his story in the telling, and he was paying tribute to the female influences down the years who had meant a lot to him, specifically in his adolescence when he was beginning his journey to adulthood. Sounds very familiar, doesn't it, in spite of its basis in Mills' experience? Coming of age time once again.
So if there was little original in his premise, was there anything to be taken away from the details he managed to summon up from his memories of the time? Was it all Jimmy Carter presidential addresses, the brief burst of punk rock when it was at its most exciting, and Judy Blume novels for the girls? You might be forgiven for thinking that was at least half of it, though granted these nostalgic movies are always going to include elements of the pop culture to set their narratives in some semblance of authenticity, but there was a sense of changing opinions and the parents who had invented the generation gap finding it had turned around on them and they were now alienated from their kids.
Dorothea feels the lack of a father figure in her son's days that maybe he does not feel so much himself, and tries to make up for it by strengthening the feminine influence so he can have a role model he can emulate, all to make him into the fine young man she always wanted him to be. This hinged on understanding: all the characters were attempting to understand something, be that about themselves or others they encounter, yet there was no guarantee they would ever achieve this. Dorothea encourages their lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig, because it wouldn't be the same without her) to guide Jamie at first, but she fills his head with radical feminism, rendering him a caring individual as far as the opposite sex are concerned, but far too interested in the minutiae of being a woman for his own good.
It's fair enough to look out for women, Dorothea reasons, but there's being compassionate and there's being clinical, and Jamie's maleness, that need to take things apart to see how they work, sabotages his empathy. Similarly, his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), two years his senior, uses him as a sounding board for her worries, notably in her sleeping over with him, but only sleeping as she believes anything sexual between them would ruin the friendship; she's probably correct, but this is no less frustrating for Jamie as he thinks he has fallen in love with the girl, whether he has or not, whether he’s in love with the idea of her, is a moot point. This was all very neatly observed, entertained some amusing moments of humour, but once it was over it came across as far too personal to Mills and difficult to sympathise with fully, as if watching a movie about someone's life was not necessarily the same as walking a mile in their moccasins. It was well acted, well presented, but lacking justification for too many scenes. Music by Roger Neill.