Friday, January 13, 2017


Opening in the Valley this weekend: 

Monster TrucksDrilling deep in North Dakota, an oil company dredges up three slimy tentacled creatures from an underground sea. Two are captured by the company, but a sweet-faced third escapes and makes friends with a frustrated local “teen” mechanic named Tripp (26-year-old Lucas Till) who dubs him “Creech” and uses his tentacles as the motive power for his beloved engine-less truck.

“It’s like the truck is a wheelchair for him,” says the pretty “teen” girl (27-year-old Jane Levy) who likes Tripp. “No,” replies the empowerment-minded Tripp, “It’s like he’s the engine for my truck.”

In short, this family film of long-delayed release is in the lead, so far this year, for literal-mindedness: Monster Trucks is about trucks powered by monsters. I suppose it’s another example, akin to the Transformers or Cars, of the child’s impulse to anthropomorphize beloved inanimate icons of power, like a truck or a gun.

Even so, it’s not every day you see a kid movie quite this weird. The oddity doesn’t derive just from the laboriousness of the premise, nor from the mixed bag of name players in the cast—Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Thomas Lennon, Amy Ryan, Barry Pepper, Frank Whaley. It’s also in the tension between the movie’s Trump-demographic setting and interests—rural white folks, souped-up trucks, a hero named like one of Sarah Palin’s kids—and the values implied by its environmentalism, its corporate villains and its general generosity of spirit.

This eccentricity left me unable to dislike Monster Trucks, though it’s corny and silly. In its visual style and its John Williams-ish music, it has the feel of a throwback, like a Spielberg knockoff from the ‘80s, and the audience with whom I saw it responded to it happily. 

20th Century WomenDespite the title—strange to think it now applies to a period piece—this film is a male coming-of-age story. The setting is Santa Barbara in 1979, where Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his chain-smoking single mom Dorothea (Annette Bening). After a safety scare, Dorothea nervily asks two young women to assist in raising Jamie.

One is teenage Julie (Elle Fanning), a troubled promiscuous neighbor who regularly sneaks over and shares a bed with Jamie but infuriatingly won’t let him touch her—she likes him too much. The other is older Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a purple-haired hipster and cancer survivor who introduces Jamie to the local punk scene. Also around is William (Billy Crudup), a mystical-minded handyman.

The writer-director is Mike Mills, drawing upon his own childhood for inspiration. His style is economical, showing a debt at times to Godfrey Reggio’s fast-motion visions (the film includes a clip from Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi). There’s plenty of high comedy, as when Jamie gets beat up by another kid over a disagreement about the necessity of “clitoral stimulation”—Bening’s facial takes in reaction to this explanation are classic.

Indeed, for all the excellence of Gerwig, Fanning, Crudup and Zumann, Bening is the knockout here. Dizzy with love for Jamie and the terror it breeds, grimacing with the effort not to say anything that alienates him, Dorothea may be the most magnificent, deeply funny, soulful creation of Bening’s career.

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