20th Century Women
Directed by: Mike Mills.
Written by: Mike Mills.
Starring: Annette Bening (Dorothea), Greta Gerwig (Abbie), Elle Fanning (Julie), Lucas Jade Zumann (Jamie), Billy Crudup (William), Alia Shawkat (Trish).
Like his last film, Beginners (2011), writer-director Mike Mills based his latest, 20th Century Women, on his own life. Beginners was about his father (played in an Oscar winning performance by Christopher Plummer), who comes out as gay in his 80s, shortly after his wife of 40 years (Mary Kay Pace) died. He’s known he was gay for years, but didn’t want to end his marriage – something he thought was kind, but was actually more than a little cruel (in that film, the mother is clearly miserable – trapped in a loveless marriage that she, as well, doesn’t leave). 20th Century Women is about that woman – who is clearly the same character, even though she’s now played by Annette Bening, and unlike in Beginners, actually does get a divorce from her husband (entirely absent here). The film takes place in 1979, and Dorothea (Bening), who had her now 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) when she was 40 is unsure if she is enough to raise Jamie to be a good man. She enlists those around her to help. She lives in a ramshackle house in Southern California, with a couple of tenants – Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something would-be rebel, who is recovering from cervical cancer which has completely thrown her life off course, and William (Billy Crudup), a kind of handyman, who hasn’t quite grasped the ‘60s are over, although he’s well-meaning enough. Dorothea tried to have William be a positive male role model for Jamie – but that didn’t take, so now she’s reaching out to Abbie, and Jamie’s best friend – Julie (Elle Fanning), a couple years older, hoping that if they share their life with Jamie, he will grow up better.
To be honest, this whole plot about Abbie and Julie helping to raise Jamie is easily the weakest part in the film. It feels contrived in a way that the rest of the film doesn’t, and every time anyone discusses the arrangement, the film hits a false note. That’s too bad, because when the film is simply sitting back and observing these characters, it’s excellent. It’s that rare film in which you truly do get the sense that you get to know the main characters – aided by Mills decision to (as he did in Beginners), provide voiceovers letting you know where these characters are going to end up. That puts a kind of bittersweet coda to the film – but rings true. These characters are incredibly close, a makeshift family for this specific time in their lives – but they aren’t a real family, and will drift apart. The other weak part of the film, aside from the contrived plot, is oddly Jamie himself – who we assume is based on Mills. Unlike Dorothea and Abbie and Julie – and hell, even William – he isn’t a particularly interesting character, and it forces the narrative into a familiar coming-of-age arc.
These flaws standout in 20th Century Women mostly because while the film resembles a Sundance-ready hit indie film – a dramedy about a group of quirky people dealing with their quirkiness – the film feels more realistic than those, more lived in. The contrivances stand out in other words, because the vast majority of the film isn’t contrived at all – and those are the parts that border in greatness. Bening is excellent as Dorothea, a woman who truly is trying. Trying to understand her son, trying to understand the times she lives in (she is a product of the Depression, and much of what she seems is strange to her). Yet, unlike typical movie parents – or many parents in real life, she doesn’t try to shut down what she doesn’t understand, but actively tries to understand it. She follows Abbie to clubs playing punk music – even if she hates it (one of the best scenes in the film is when she and William listen to Black Flag and the Talking Heads back-to-back – and together they wonder if Black Flag know they’re terrible – they think they do). As Dorothea, Bening actually seems to be listening to everything be said around her, taking it all in, and trying to process it. It’s a marvelous performance. Greta Gerwig is equally good as Abbie – on the surface, adding another lovable, 20-something eccentric to her resume, and to an extent she is. But her Abbie has more weight than most – she’s had to deal with cancer, which has thrown her life off-balance. She’s supposed to be in the art scene in New York – where she was briefly, and was happy, and now she’s dealing with some pretty heavy stuff that she shouldn’t have to. It ranks among her best work to date. And Elle Fanning continues her string of strong performances – even if on the surface, the concept of a depressed, chain-smoking teenage girl who acts out against her life with promiscuous behavior seems clichéd on the surface, she finds interesting depths to it. Fanning continues to impress – adding this to her impressive work in The Neon Demon, Ginger & Rosa, Super 8 and Somewhere among others.