Film Review: 20th Century Women

Annette Bening is nothing short of superb as the 20th-century woman, and mother, who keeps her head, and her sense of humor, while trying very hard to understand and cope with the strange new world her son will soon inherit.
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Writer-director Mike Mills was a teenager in the late 1970s, when he and his single mom lived in a big, ramshackle house in Santa Barbara, Calif., an upper-middle-class enclave that remained more or less untouched by the California cultural upheavals of the ’60s—i.e., the Sexual Revolution, the Women’s Movement, the turn-on and tune-out faction, etc. And yet…

In Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women, 55-year-old Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), is a divorced single mom, and yes, she lives with her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in a huge old house in Santa Barbara. But Dorothea is keenly aware of how her son’s Baby Boomer generation is changing the world, and she also sees how threatening, of how tempting, some of the new cultural forces can be. Because she so desperately wants to ease Jamie’s passage into adulthood—wants him to become “a good man”—she decides to seek help in guiding him through the pitfalls of an “anything goes” society. And who better to teach Jamie what he needs to know—about sex, for instance—than the two young women who are already his friends. Well, even great mothers don’t know everything.

Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is the twenty-something wild child who rents a room in Dorothea’s big old house. A quirky photographer with dyed blood-red hair, Abbie sports a sullen look, archly feminist views and a penchant for all things punk. So, naturally, Jamie adores her. Abbie introduces him to punk bands like the Buzzcocks, gives him a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (a book she found empowering) and asks Jamie to accompany her when she must undergo surgery for cervical cancer. Needless to say, the kid gets a crash course in both the frailties of the female body and the strength of a feminist woman’s beliefs. Oh, and Abbie also shows him some wild dance moves.

Dorothea’s good intentions backfire again when she asks Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), to help guide him in the right direction. First of all, the boy really believes he’s in love with Julie, who’s seventeen, sexually active, and more than a little screwed up. Turns out Julie’s mother is a psychologist who insists her daughter take part in the group sessions she runs where clients bare their souls and their sex lives. Julie’s unique perspective on male-female relationships leads her to decide not to have sex with Jamie, even though she habitually sneaks into his room at night to sleep with him—just sleep—and also torture him with the details of her love life.

Rounding out Dorothea’s household is William (Billy Crudup), another boarder and an all-round handyman who could be a major male influence on Jamie’s life. But William is not at all interested in being a role model for Dorothea’s son, primarily because he’s infatuated with Dorothea. Although William is smart and friendly, he’s also a hippie dropout and a practitioner of casual sex, mostly with Abbie. It’s nice to have him around, though, especially when Dorothea needs him to fix the plumbing—or to take her to find Julie and Jamie when they run away to San Luis Obispo.

That trip is pretty much the most exciting thing that happens in 20th Century Women. In Mike Mills’ other autobiographical film, Beginners, a 2011 paean to his father, he told a more linear and conventional story, and Christopher Plummer won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar playing a closeted divorced man who, like Mills’ dad, was 75 when he came out as a gay man. In focusing on his mercurial mother for 20th Century Women, Mills forgoes a similarly satisfying conclusion, but his new film does have lots of memorable and funny dialogue, plus some scenes that beautifully and bracingly recreate how it was back in the day. (At a hilarious dinner party, Abbie and Julie’s frank revelations about the workings of the female body stun the men in the group—and even surprise and annoy the hip Dorothea.) Best of all, 20th Century Women gives us a slew of terrific performances from the young ’uns, and one from Annette Bening that could very well win her awards. 

Bening may not be the only fifty-something actress capable of playing Dorothea, but she is surely the best. She knows this woman, knows the worries of being a mother and how it feels when a person’s own youth was anchored in a time and place—The Depression and World War II—that, although still a powerful presence within her, are quiet irrelevant in the world. As Dorothea goes about overseeing the lives of her nearest and dearest, she is both wise (“Wondering if you’re happy? That’s a great shortcut to being depressed”) and sometimes blind to her own cluelessness (“When I started smoking, it wasn’t bad”). Above all, this great character is a dreamer and striver whose eyes are always open to possibility and whose sharp mind is always alert to nuance. And, despite her worries, she obviously passed on these same qualities to her son.

20th Century Woman does have some questionable elements: The insertion of historic stock footage is intrusive and unnecessary, and the occasional weird color effects distract rather than enhance. But nothing alters the fact that this is a fascinating, funny and important film. Sure, it’s a coming-of-age story, but what an age it was, at the end of hippiedom and just before the buttoned-up and belligerent Reagan era—an era that morphed into the so-called Information Age, which, God help us, morphed into whatever this is that we’re living through right now. Hmmm. Wonder how Dorothea would have handled it.

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