20th Century Women
Coming-of-age dramedy looks for family in friends
20th Century Women (2017)
Directed by Mike Mills
Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann
Following his feature film debut with 2005’s indie darling Thumbsucker (based on Walter Kirn’s novel), writer-director Mike Mills turned to plundering his own life experiences, creating the semi-autobiographic dramedy Beginners. That 2010 effort, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, detailed the story of a grown man whose 75-year-old father suddenly figures out he’s gay. The much-praised film was loosely based on Mill’s experiences with his own late-blooming dad. Now Mills turns his attentions to his mother, who proves an equally colorful inspiration.
The physically intimate, emotionally expansive comedy-drama 20th Century Women is set in the late 1970s. It centers around Dorthea Fields (Annette Bening), a first wave proto-feminist who dreamed of becoming an aviatrix but ended up as a divorced single mother trying to raise her aimless youth of a son in a rickety, forever-
Like most teenagers Jamie hides in his bedroom and slinks out of the house every afternoon with a few cursory grunts. That doesn’t mean, however, that he lacks a rich and conflict-filled life of his own. At school he’s surrounded by idiots. And occasionally he does idiotic things (like a dangerous asphyxiation game that punches mom’s panic button). But that doesn’t mean he’ll be an idiot all his life. Mostly, Jamie spends time mooning over his best friend since childhood, Julie (Elle Fanning). Now that they’re hitting puberty, Jamie is starting to express a much more physical attraction to the golden-haired girl next door. Julie, for her part, doesn’t want to look at her longtime pal in that way. Which is fine—except she sneaks out of her troubled household nearly every night and sleeps in Jamie’s bed. Julie is savvy enough to both rebuff the horny teenage boy’s physical yearnings and exploit them for some much-needed love and attention.
The other major influence on Jamie’s life is Abbie (Greta Gerwig, delivering the best performance of Kristen Stewart’s career). Abbie is one of the luckless residents of Dorthea’s ramshackle rooming house. A punk rock-loving photographer with a wounded animal gaze, Abbie is recovering from a near-terminal bout of cervical cancer. Haunted by both her near death and her almost life, Abbie gives Jamie a glimpse into California’s burgeoning counter culture, introducing him to bands like Black Flag, the Germs, The Clash and the Talking Heads (and setting off a funny, running cultural debate between the merits of punk rockers Black Flag and the talents of art rockers The Talking Heads).
Unable to connect with her increasingly distant son, Dorthea starts to wonder if it’s possible that it “takes a man to raise a man.” She tries briefly to get her only other rooming house tenant, laconic ex-hippy handyman William (Billy Crudup in a charming turn), to lend a hand with Jamie. But he’s just the adult version of Jamie, a lost sheep struggling to figure out what it means to be a man in the insecure era of Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech (one of many rock-solid nostalgic touchstones Mills taps into). William’s various “manly” attempts to play catch and talk cars with the boy fall on deaf ears. Worried about Jamie’s future, Dorthea asks the two major influences in her son’s life—Julie and Abbie to pitch in. It makes sense. Each of these women, in their own way, are fiercely protective of Jamie. But can they markedly contribute to his psychological makeup? And does he really need help being who he is?
Coming-of-age stories have been a thing since the movie industry itself came of age. And 20th Century Women easily could have devolved into a cutesy series of quirky, indie film montages about growing up. But Mills has such a strong sense of humanity, he can’t reduce his characters to worn-out tropes. Wounded artist Abbie, burgeoning teenage dream Julie and self-absorbed intellectual Dorthea have their own tough lives to live through and figure out. Nobody has the answers, not for Jamie and not for themselves. Everybody’s got a certain wisdom to impart, but nobody knows what the future holds. “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like,” Abbie says in what could be the film’s logline, “know that your life is not going to be anything like that.” Go ahead and dream about being an aviatrix—but be prepared for divorce, cancer, bankruptcy and all manner of unexpected diversions.
20th Century Women doesn’t exactly boast a strong central plotline. That is to say, not a lot of great consequence happens over its two hour runtime. But that’s OK. It’s mostly a character sketch spread among an ensemble cast. Credit goes out to the five strong leads Mills has chosen—with extra kudos doled out to Bening, who turns in one of her most sharply delineated performances. Dorthea is a tough, prickly, oddly admirable character. She’s the unbalanced lynchpin around which this movie revolves.
In the end the film serves best as deep-dive nostalgia. It imagines people as a product as much as their times as of their environment. 20th Century Women is a fantastic evocation of time and place. Wedged at the end of the post-disco, pre-Reagan ’70s, the film captures the wishy-washy malaise of the era. Pegged at one end, still figuring out how to throw off the shackles of the straightlaced 1950s, is Dorthea. On the other end of the spectrum is Abbie, listening to underground music and ready to toss brickbats at the upcoming Reagan Revolution. In the middle is Jamie, trying to future out where he belongs. Although all of that sounds deadly serious, the film is lightened by a genuine sense of wit, which keeps things funny, even when bending toward crises of existential proportions. It’s the film’s little details—from the new wave/punk soundtrack, to the tumbledown set design to the solid historical references—that give the film such sneaky weight. Despite the fact that the story meanders and the characters never quite settle on a solid course of action, the ending packs a surprising emotional punch. In the end, we’ll all get though it. Or we won’t. We’ll succeed. Or we won’t. That’s life.