20th Century Women, 2016.
Directed by Mike Mills.
Starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann.
Three women explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s, as viewed through the eyes of a teenage boy.
It’s the end of the 70s, punk and skateboarding are in full swing, Jimmy Carter’s in The White House and 60 is far from being the new 40. It’s also the world inhabited by Dorothea (Annette Bening), her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and the rest of their unconventional “family” set-up, inside the crumbling walls of their Santa Barbara house. And, while it may not sound like it, 20th Century Women is a coming of age story.
Inevitably, part of it is Jamie’s own story, maturing into a young adult, trying to understand the older people around him and dealing with his raging hormones. Single mum Dorothea decides he needs more than just her to guide him in life and entrusts him to two others. There’s her lodger, flame haired photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who introduces him to feminist propaganda and graphically detailed books on sex. It’s not quite what his mum has in mind, but it turns out to have its advantages. The other is his life-long friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who frequently spends the night in his room, but their relationship is purely platonic. Promiscuous and frequently imitating her distant therapist mother, she’s not exactly role model material either, yet he learns invaluable lessons from her.
But this is a coming of age story for all of them, Dorothea in particular. She is, as Jamie puts it, “from The Depression”, which means she’s tough: for him, her chain smoking is the perfect illustration. She’s also older than everybody around her and, while she disguises it most of the time, she’s painfully that she’s reached the stage where showing a man that she’s interested in him means running the risk that he’ll be repulsed by the idea. So it’s a film about growing older, not old, showing that life lessons happen all the time and aren’t dictated by age.
More broadly, it means that Mike Mills’ third film in fourteen years (after Thumbsucker and Beginners) is essentially about life, its changing relationships, its triumphs and its tragedies, something that’s common to us all. He drew on his relationship with his father for Beginners (2010), with Christopher Plummer winning an Oscar playing a dad who reveals in later life that he’s gay. For 20th Century Women, Mills is inspired by his mother and, even though there’s a whiff of Dorothea being a less eccentric version, it provides Annette Bening with one of her best roles in years and the result is a luminous performance. One that’s been somewhat overlooked this awards season. Mills, however, has landed an Oscar nod for the film’s screenplay.
He’s taken a disciplined approach in sticking to a small number of main characters, allowing all of the cast to show what they’re made of. As in Jackie, Greta Gerwig sidesteps her trademark quirkiness, giving us instead something more serious and, at times, truly tender. But, because this is a film about characters rather than narrative, the story – such as it is – is rambling and often feels untidy. Which means it doesn’t always quite hit the spot.
Billed as a comedy, 20th Century Women won’t have you rolling in the aisles. The laughs are gentle, coming from the characters and Dorothea in particular who constantly challenging the perceptions of her age. When she’s pulled over by a traffic cop and can’t produce her driving license, he asks her for details like her age and address – “a little forward” as she describes it, with more than just a touch of irony. It’s an affectionate portrait of growing older at any age, it’s thoughtful and has a stand-out performance from Bening. Yet it’s never quite enough to leave you feeling totally satisfied.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★