20th Century Women reportedly tells the tales of the three women from three generations in the late 1970s. However, the film spends the first half hour building the story around the life of a young man. I was starting to get antsy in my seat, annoyed that I was watching another “story about women”, written and directed by a man, Mike Mills, that is told from the viewpoint of a male character. Thankfully, the remaining hour and a half proved me wrong.
The story is a fairly straight-forward character study with no big twists and turns. Dorothea, played by Annette Benning, is a divorced single mother of Jamie, played by newcomer Lucas Jade Zuman. She works as a designer, rents out rooms to two boarders, raises her son and attempts to have a bit of a social life. With everything else, there’s not much time for the latter. As Jamie matures he becomes more distant. Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie, her late twenties avant garde photographer/punk rock boarder played by Greta Gerwig, and Julie, Jamie’s best friend and love interest played by Elle Fanning, to groom him into a “good” man.
As I’d said, the first half hour focuses mainly on Jaime and his view of the three women in his life. But as the film goes on, each of these characters is developed nicely and in their own time.
Benning is spot-on playing an aging woman that is, at the same time, losing her place in the world as well as her son’s life. Having always been a driven and capable person, society now takes her less seriously as she ages when compared to how the men around her in the same age group are venerated. There’s been some Oscar buzz around this role, and while I think Benning played it exceptionally well, I’m not sure that the average voter will connect with the character enough for her to actually get a win. Either way around it, her performance and this movie are FAR superior to her other movie that just came out, a little turdbomb by the name of Rules Don’t Apply. As a matter of fact, let’sjust pretend that doesn’t exist. For her sake, hopefully the Academy will do the same.
As 2016 opened, I didn’t have any interest in watching Elle Fanning in a movie. I’ll admit that I’m naturally biased against Hollywood families. They typically get more roles than deserved just because of their family connections. While she wouldn’t keep me from watching a movie, I go in with low expectations. However, Elle Fanning comes fresh off of her outstanding performance in Neon Demon to be in this movie. Her character Julie is the daughter of a psychiatrist that is a divorced single mother. She simultaneously rebels against and spouts the psychobabble nonsense she’s heard from her all her life. Julie is acting out as a bad girl, smoking, drinking and fooling around with trashy guys all while being a caring friend to the love-struck Jamie. This is pretty much the exact opposite of Jesse in Neon Demon, but played just as capably. I think I’ll actually be looking forward to seeing Fanning in future releases.
The character of Abbie was also an area of concern for me. I was worried that it was going to be another ham-fisted representation of early-era punk rock culture. However, she and the culture were well portrayed. Instead of being a one-dimensional portrayal, punk is shown as being divided into many sects, from hardcore to “artsy” new-wave, with a unifying theme of “having more passion than skill”. Greta Gerwig plays Abbie as an independent and free-thinking woman at a bit of a crossroads. She’s still a punk, but trying her place in the world outside of that culture. Gerwig’s not typically in things that are my style. So I’m not overly familiar with her work outside of Pony on China, IL, but I thought she was pretty astounding in 20th Century Women.
Fanning and Gerwig did the majority of the heavy lifting in this movie, but all three women showed that being a woman and feminism mean different things to different people and especially depending on generation. Each of their characters went through a number of varying situations that required quite a bit of range.
The focus of the movie is certainly not on him but Billy Crudup also turns in a great performance as William, the former hippie handyman that rents out the other room at Dorothea’s house. His story is touched on, but mostly he’s just there to move along Abbie and Dorothea’s tales.
There’s no one thing in the film that I can point to and say why it was great. It’s just a really good story that shows how people can work together to make things better/more tolerable. There was some exceptionally poignant use of Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech that made me go back and listen to the whole thing after I’d left the theater.
There were a few things that bothered me. I didn’t like that everyone’s story needed to be neatly tied up at the end. We learn how everyone’s life played out, from start to finish. That was pretty unnecessary. Also, the voice over narration flips around from character to character, seemingly without purpose.
In the end, this is a good movie for any time but especially for where we are as a society right now. Our view of women seems to have only gotten worse since the late 70s, not better. Maybe we can all learn a little more from Abbie and Julie.