20th CENTURY WOMEN
Writer/Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
20th Century Women is another reminder why Annette Bening is one of the best actresses of her generation. She isn’t the kind of actress that cranks out a big blockbuster film every year. Each one she makes seems to be made for a particular reason. She’s one of the three women that make up the title. As Dorothea, she plays single mom to her son Jamie (Zumann). She had Jamie late in life at the age of 40 and shortly after that her husband, his father left the picture leaving them all alone. Throughout Jamie’s teen years, Dorothea is realizing she is growing more and more distant from her son. She doesn’t know how to relate or understand the struggles he is going through as a teenager.
She seems to have an open door policy to their home, which provides an opportunity for Jamie to grow up with other influences around him. There’s Abbie (Gerwig) who rents a room in the house. She’s a free-spirit aspiring photographer who is in recovery from cervical cancer. Jamie’s friend, Julie (Fanning), practically lives there as well. She’s the rebellious teen who battles with self-destructive behavior. The only steady male figure for Jamie is Billy Crudup’s character, William. He’s Dorothea’s handy man who goes between fixing the ceiling, the banisters, or cars. With Dorothea unable to effectively communicate with her son, she turns to Jamie and Abbie to mentor and help him grow up.
Mike Mills is the writer and director behind the independent hit Beginners from 2010, which won Christopher Plummer the Oscar. If that film was inspired by the relationship he had with his dad, then 20th Century Women would be his cathartic reflection on his mother and some of the women in his life. Mills’ sets his film in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. It’s at a time when politics were changing and the punk music scene was taking shape. He makes great use out of projecting images, literary passages, and music from the time to make the culture an important part of the film. Mills very much explores the generational divide that comes between parents and their children. Now, I didn’t grow up in the late ‘70s when the film is set, but there’s a timeless feel to it. It’s easy to see this in the present day when the political environment seems to make this painfully apparent. There is a misunderstanding that comes in the shifting of times from one generation to the next as we see what’s going on with Dorothea and Jamie. That’s not to say that it’s a negative divide or that both parties aren’t willing to learn and grow. Mills adds quite a bit of humor to the film to acknowledge the ups and downs of the situation. There’s a funny scene with Dorothea desperately trying to understand punk music. She and William turn the record player on and try to move around to some of Jamie and Abbie’s records in order to make sense of the lyrics.
We see throughout 20th Century Women that families come in all shapes and sizes. It takes a village to grow, learn, and help one another out. It’s more than just a mother and son story as the whole household together is really one big family unit. Every character is going through a trying period no matter how old they are. Whether they want to admit it or not, they each need help and find that in someone else in the house. Abbie’s cancer makes her exam life a little bit closer and turns to William to help feel beautiful and loved again. Julie goes through a pregnancy scare and relies on the friendship she has with Jamie and the welcome feeling she receives from Dorothea as a way to ground and stabilize her spontaneous ways.
Mills has written a wonderful screenplay and has given all five of his characters their own distinct voice. It also means that we’re given a great ensemble of actors that all feel pitch-perfect in their roles. Annette Bening doesn’t need to go through a big transformation to give a stellar performance. Like she has proven many times over with films like The Grifters, American Beauty, or The Kids Are All Right, she finds that raw inner honesty with Dorothea. I was completely mesmerized while watching Bening at work. She knows Dorothea isn’t a perfect character. She knows how to play all of her flaws and use them to make her character grow and change to better herself as a mother. I feel a little awkward claiming this is Elle Fanning’s best role to date as she’s only 18 years old, but she brings this maturity with her that’s shining through with Julie. She’s a complete natural on screen without falling into an easy trap of making Julie an annoying or angst-ridden teen like she could have been under the hands of another young actress. Greta Gerwig has played a variety of eccentric characters before to the point of making it a trademark feature for her. Abbie could also be considered quirky and different as she’s inspired by Bowie in her appearance and art. Gerwig makes her someone looking to be loved and accepted wherever she is, but she can’t always find that with those around her.
20th Century Women is that “slice of life” type of story. Mills would rather focus on a period of time for his characters and the struggles they all seem to be dealing with in terms of their development. This type of storytelling may bother some moviegoers looking for a distinct structure with a definitive ending. This doesn’t necessarily happen outside of Mills using individual voiceovers to clarify what happens with each character after this portion of their life. Annette Bening leads the wonderful ensemble with Mills writing characters that feel grounded in reality. It’s the personal touches he has added from his own life that make his story relatable and hopeful never dipping into a world of obscurity for the sake of being different.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? The award season chatter for Bening and company is well-deserved
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS