A teenage boy in 1970s California is raised by three women at different stages of their lives in a coming-of-age story with a loopy feminist edge
20th Century Women
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Directed by: Mike Mills
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
“Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed,” says Dorothea (Annette Bening), the wise wreck of a single mother who’s the chief suspect in 20th Century Women, which is itself a sort of wise wreck of movie. She also says, “Having your heart broken’s a tremendous way to learn about the world.” Not much gets past Dorothea.
She’s speaking to Jamie (a sad-eyed Lucas Jade Zumann), her 15-year-old son, who is on the cusp of adulthood in a world that is also on the cusp of something. We’re in Santa Barbara, Calif. — just on the edge of the great pull of Los Angeles — in 1979. Punk rock. Jimmy Carter. Second- (or is it third-?) wave feminism. The movie begins with Dorothea and Jamie in a grocery store, looking out the window to see their old Ford Galaxie on fire in the parking lot, flames shooting out of the hood. Something to do with the electrical system. Firefighters arrive. Dorothea invites them to dinner. She’s always inviting people to dinner.
20th Century Women is a nostalgic and eccentric memoir written and directed by Mike Mills, and apparently based on his own unlikely childhood (a previous Mills film, Beginners, concerns an elderly man who informs his son that he is gay.) It’s kind of about how Jamie is raised by a group of women: his mom, plus a punk photographer named Abbie (Greta Gerwig, whose flappy-armed dances are a feature of all her movies) who is a boarder in their magnificent but collapsing home, and Julie (pensive Elle Fanning), a slightly older girl who has sex with everyone else but will only sleep with Jamie as a friend. Julie, the daughter of a Gestalt therapist, fancies herself something of a psychologist herself, although she seems to need one.
And that’s pretty well the plot, although you can throw in William (Billy Crudup), the laid-back handyman and mechanic who’s helping renovate Dorothea’s house and who represent the kind of all-embracing and sincere hippy-dippy compassion — mixed with some gentle promiscuity — that serves to remind you that, in the manner of the marijuana smell that never really came out of the couch, the ‘60s lingered for a long time after the 1960s.
Mills tells his story with a glancing quirkiness, both affectionate and meandering. He includes old newsreels, voice-over narration about everyone’s past and also their futures — we learn the fate of some characters in the middle of the film — and nods to some beloved icons: Louis Armstrong, Casablanca, an old recording of As Time Goes By that fights for attention opposite the era’s chief cultural clash, Black Flag vs. Talking Heads.
Dorothea is a liberal-minded parent — she writes notes for her son to be absent for school with such excuses as “He was doing volunteer work for the Sandinistas” — but she’s not sure she can do the job alone. “I know him less every day,” she confesses.
So she asks Abbie and Julie to help raise him, a job they take on with a combination of cynical realism and hair-raising permissiveness. At one stage, Jamie is handed a copy of the groundbreaking medical book Our Bodies, Ourselves and gets into a schoolyard fight with another boy over the importance of the clitoral orgasm. It’s a moment that stands as a landmark in the cinema of feminist empowerment (slapstick division.)
The movie swirls all around Jamie, but he’s something of a cipher at the centre, a brave choice for a filmmaker who is talking about his own life. We feel like Dorothea: we don’t know what to make of him and so we have to rely on clues (his taste in music, the hairstyles and clothes of the bands he admires) to get it. Jamie says he just wants to be a good man, a task that the movie presents with a clear-eyed understanding of the difficulties involved.
In fact, the film it really about Dorothea, a 55-year-old chain-smoker of menthol cigarettes (she thinks they’re healthier) who is free of the world of men but also — like Abbie and Julie — unhappily defined by it. And Bening couldn’t be better: beautifully comfortable in her age (the actor is 58), with intelligence, occasionally undercut by the slight signs of a mother’s panic, in her eyes. She’s always leaning forward to listen to the other characters because she is paying attention, which is another of the themes of 20th Century Women. It’s what they’re all trying teach the boy in their midst, and almost what he learns from them. That, and the stuff about clitoral orgasms. After all, he just wants to be a good man.
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