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Some films hinge on the eccentricities of a single character, a central figure that will more than define a movie but rather elevate it. With 20th Century Women, a title that implies a cast of females with parts to play, it is instead the central role of an older mother that emerges ahead of the others and comes to be a challenging, powerfully compelling figure that will resonate throughout this exceptionally well made story that celebrates the wonder in us all.
Dorothea (Annette Bening) lives in Santa Barbara, California, a single mother raising her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a teenager whom she had later in life. He is naturally rebellious and curious, becoming a man growing out of her reach. Renting two rooms in her fixer-upper home are William (Billy Crudup), a lost hippie-type who is helping to restore the house, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and cancer survivor. Into the mix is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend who is unhappy at home, a depressed and flirty girl who often slips into Jamie’s room at night to sleep, thinking only they are friends, though for the maturing and wanting young man, it is a near torturous thing.
Times are a changin’, to steal a phrase, as enormous shifts in music and social barriers shutter, and Jamie is in flux, trying to discover who he is, slowly testing his freedoms from his mother, who has until now been the tight and comforting wings that sheltered him. Dorothea senses this pull and so asks Abbie and Julie for help in raising Jamie through this new phase, to help him understand the women not only in his life, but who share this world with him.
Directed by Mike Mills, whose previous film, 2010’s highly-celebrated Beginners earned its star Christopher Plummer an Academy Award, 20th Century Women is a uniquely engaging work about women of great strength and vulnerabilities, fully-realized characters that ache with authenticity when they should, by any standard, be cliché. Mills, who also wrote the screenplay, crafts a dizzyingly affecting story that avoids the trappings of the genre and the indie film stigma, not to mention the potential tropes of the era, developing “quirky” women into uncommonly personal and strangely familiar people.
That begins with Dorothea, a decidedly abstract woman with a fiercely independent streak who is aware that Jamie is lacking a male influence, though William is not entirely the ideal role model, though feels that her “village” is best suited to guide Jamie. She understands too that she lies on the other side of a growing gap between generations, one that seems to expand daily, especially as youth gain a larger voice in the world beyond her home. Bringing Abbie and Jamie in as mentors, to which they themselves are not sure how to contribute, mean Jamie becomes exposed to a far more feminist view. That sees Abbie supplying him with powerful literature about female empowerment, one that Jamie becomes well-versed in, leading to a humorous scene with another boy at school about the proper stimulation of a woman’s sexual anatomy. These are the educational and sometimes calamitous consequences of Jamie’s immersion and highlight Mills’ delicate but valuable attention to the premise.
The film employs narration that actually serve less expositional than organic, with Jamie delivering the bulk of it, the reflective prose offering greater depth to these characters rather than feeling as if we’re playing catch up. We piece together much about who these people are and their relation to each other, and grow closer to the enigma that is Jamie and the influences that come to shape him.
Bening, who has always been a powerful presence, gives what might be considered her greatest performance, which is saying a lot. A woman from the Depression, she is cultured by her past, open to the future, but confused by its evolution. She has a penetrating observational eye, sometimes uncomfortable for those caught in her gaze, and is openly critical of that which seems demanding of such. Bening is a wonder to watch and is surrounded by others who rise up to her challenge.
20th Century Women is a riveting story, a complex and subplot-heavy film about an equally complex relationship that never slips into emotional manipulation. Conflicts are unconventional, as are the resolutions but most importantly, it is the people at the center of them, each making this a profoundly enriching experience.
Movie description: 20th Century Women is a 2017 comedy-drama about three women in the late 1970s and the sweeping social and political changes that marked the times.
Director(s): Mike Mills
Actor(s): Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig