20TH Century Women is a slow comedy-drama directed and written by Mike Mills about a young boy (himself) who was raised by his mother and two other women. I found the situation to be pretty normal for a single mom who worked and needed help raising her son. The film is set in 1970s Southern California and focuses on Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), Jamie’s determined single mother in her mid-50s, who decides the best way she can parent her teenage son is to enlist her young tenants, Abigail “Abbie” (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields’ home and Julie Hamlin Porter (Elle Fanning), a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor. Also included in the pact is William (Billy Crudup) a mellow handyman.
20th Century Women is no simple coming-of-age story. Much of the movie’s power comes from its talented actresses. Elle Fanning is perfect as Julie—her appearance gives her an air of innocence that contrasts her rebellious lifestyle of sex and drugs. Despite the details of her troubled home life, Elle never makes you feel sorry for Julie, however, her delivery and expressions appear annoying at times.
Interestingly, Greta Gerwig displays the opposite effect: her short, messy red crop matches Abbie’s taste in punk music and hardcore feminist literature, but as the movie progresses, the you begin to see her softness. Gerwig’s tone remains tough and caustic even during expressions of her vulnerability and she allows Abbie’s flaws to come through as clearly as her strengths.
Most notable, however, the incomparable Annette Bening shines as the slightly frumpy, brutally honest and stubbornly practical Dorothea, who cannot seem to find her place in any generation of women. Most of Bening’s acting makes Dorothea into a humorous, sometimes frustrating, character. But throughout the film, her insecurities burn holes in her confident persona like the glowing tip of her ever-present cigarette, which can be nerve racking. Balancing Dorothea’s loud, brash strength with her subtle self-doubt and fear of the future seems impossible, but Bening accomplishes it with ease. Bening’s performance is most powerful during her interactions with Jamie and in their scenes together, it is clear that Bening’s talent inspires unparalleled performance in Zumann as well, whose character flows between self-assurance and uncertainty like any real teenager.
Realness is at the heart of every character in 20th Century Women: each is unapologetically human, which makes the movie timeless despite the music, costuming and references that heavily dictate its setting. In fact, the release of the film on Inauguration Day could not have been more timely—20th Century Women reflects the themes and struggles of the recent Women’s March and other feminist movements, establishing links between generations of activists, questioning “progress” and warning against the dangers of falling backwards. If you’re not into the feminist movement, nor analytical enough to bear with 20th Century Women literally, then this movie is not for you. I think it has it’s moments and definitely has it’s messages.
[20TH CENTURY WOMEN is nominated for Best Writing Original Screenplay]