Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
Running time: 118 minutes
Release Date: February 10th
15-year-old Jamie (Zumann) is growing up in 1979, an era of transition, in which his mother Dorothea (Bening) muses that men ‘can’t be what they were and they don’t know what to do next.’ In the absence of Jamie’s father — a figure symbolically destroyed in the film’s opening scene as his car spontaneously combusts — Dorothea enlists the help of her lodger, Abby (Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Fanning) to help him figure that out. Jamie is bemused, attributing this idea to his mother ‘being from the Depression,’ when whole neighbourhoods and communities banded together their limited resources to raise children — yet discovers feminism, post-punk, and ultimately, a heartfelt appreciation for his mother and her unorthodox lifestyle choices.
Writer and director Mike Mills last gave us Beginners, a painfully twee story of dysfunctional misfit families making things work through forceful good will, and aims for something similar here. With 20th Century Women, these characteristic affectations are at least somewhat lessened by virtue of the film’s narrative orbiting a teenager: the quirks Mills imposes through montage, soundtrack, and voiceovers befit scenes about Jamie trying on the new values, new sounds, new sensations, offered up by three generations of women with different perspectives. The results can be quite funny and sweet. (‘What was the fight about?’ ‘…Clitoral stimulation.’) Yet, at times, the quirks feel tacked-on, tokenistic, and are less cute when the effect is simply to tell us, rather than show us, how to feel about a character – particularly Dorothea’s lodger and sometime-lover, William (Crudup) or Abby.
Perhaps this is because the film devotes so much energy to the mother/son pairing at its heart. Annette Bening’s performance feels much more casually idiosyncratic, and stands out as the star turn, dwarfing others by comparison. She is, by far, the most enjoyable element of 20th Century Women, exuding warmth and easy good humour, without sacrificing the pragmatic bluntness for which she is so beloved by those who have followed her career. Her face, indeed, her whole body displays a full, complex range of emotion without ever over-acting, either quietly reacting to an essay about ageing and obsolescence, or dancing with abandon to Talking Heads. As we are awarded both her own point-of-view of events, and her son’s narration of her life, there’s more depth and complexity to Dorothea, which balances her in a way the film struggles to do with its supporting characters. While Gerwig, Crudup, even Fanning, give fully-committed performances, their characters feel lazily written at times. There’s something a little too teenage about liking David Bowie as shorthand for who you are; or having a personality-type of ‘sexually-active.’
Again, the film’s use of music can be on the nose, and considering the energy with which these characters love to dance – just to move – that feels like a shameful waste. It’s hard not to draw mental comparisons with Richard Linklater, whose films often burst with love for the music that drives them – Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, last summer’s Everybody Wants Some!! – yet use it to complement his visual and scripted storytelling, rather than rely on it as an aural backbone. At an early stage of the film, Abby waxes lyrical on The Raincoats, and how they’re not ‘bad,’ but rather, their passion outweighs the ‘tools’ they have to express it; and I wondered if that isn’t meta-commentary on Mills’ own occasionally-awkward use of aesthetic tricks and character development. While there’s clearly love and good intentions here, Mills hasn’t yet figured out how to most coolly communicate this to an audience. But I think he’s getting better.
While shallow and uneven at times, overall 20th Century Women is a fun and loving ode to female endeavour, elevated by strong, dedicated performances, and the high escapist fantasy of a teenage boy engaging with feminist theory.