20th Century Women is a hard movie to define. It is a chronicle of Second-Wave Feminism struggling to raise a son. Or maybe it is coming of age story as a metaphor for America’s identity crisis in 1979. Or maybe it’s only about just a bunch of lost people surviving a weird few months. Really though 20th Century Women is a slice of life about five likable characters who have met at a crossroads in each other’s lives. These people from across four generations in a way grow up together. Mike Mills directs the film, his first in six years. 20th Century Women premiered at the New York Film Festival this past weekend. It will have a full release on December 25th.
20th Century Women‘s greatest asset is it cast. The quirky and odd bunch grind off each other’s personalities but truly adore each other as a temporary family. The film is centered around Jaime (Lucas Jade Zumann), a teenager living in 1979 in a half-restored old house with his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) and various odd lodgers and hangers-on. Those include his best friend/attempted love interest, Julie (Elle Fanning), a confused man trying to recover from the Sixties (Billy Crudup), and Abbie, a young red-haired punk artist with cancer (Greta Gerwig). As Jaime has grown up, his divorced mother feels she can no longer raise him on her own. So she tries to have Julie and Abbie show him how to be a man. Jaime, of course, is none to be pleased to discover his masculine role models must be the girl he’s horrifically friend-zoned with and a twenty-something failed Bohemian.
20th Century Women really has no central plot other than a running conflict between Jaime and Dorothea. Each of the five characters in their crumbling house are dealing with heavy problems of their own. Julie uses her sex to push people away so cannot sleep with the one boy who actually respects her. Abbie doesn’t know if she can have children. But ultimately the real struggle is Jaime and Dorothea refusing to talk with each other. To Dorothea, Jaime is just a kid that she no longer knows how to parent. She even calls him “kid” and smokes a cigarette in imitation of her favorite movie star, Humphrey Bogart. But to Jaime, Dorothea is just an old lady out of her element. “She grew up in the Thirties” is his excuse for her behavior.
A Comedy of Character and Time
Perhaps the most misleading thing about 20th Century Women is its title. Only 3/5ths of the core cast are actually women. And despite the title’s grand political promise, it is not really about the experience of all women of the last century, just a few in a particular time and place. Mike Mills writes the film as a partial memoir. Dorothea is based off his own mother, while Greta and Julie are fusions of several girls he knew growing up. He’s best at the moments of sentimentality between his three-dimensional characters, who clearly mean a great deal to him.
20th Century Women has high-minded concepts. While Dorothea is obsessing over Big Band music and Forties movies, her housemates are rocking out to dirty Punk. Meanwhile, you have about a billion other concepts that could all have been films in of themselves. These include the awareness of female sexuality, what feminism means to the men it raises, the rise of Reagan vs. the failure of the Flower Children, etc. etc. All these chunks do not really come together into a weighty thesis about the big things, but they do come together into a story about relationships and life. Not all of the plotlines even come to a satisfying end; some conflicts are never solved. But the characters still grow out of them better and more complete people.
Mills goes very flashy and slick with 20th Century Women in places where he really does not need to. Various montages show period pop culture and stock pictures as if the cast and script alone cannot sell us on this really being 1979. Car trips for some reason always are spiced up by a psychedelic 3D blurring effect. But the film’s strength is in its cast who play together like people who have loved each other for years and years. The richness of their bond is a heartwarming thing. They are lovably dysfunctional. Annette Bening is currently being hailed as the front-runner for Best Actress for 20th Century Women. But with this film it feels wrong for only piece of a great five-person band to get all the credit. They all deserve to be recognized for a great cinematic achievement.