20th Century Women February 1, 2017
Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is at a loss. She’s 55, divorced, has a 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and lives in a crumbling joint with a quartet of disparate, lost souls. It’s 1979. She’s “from the Depression” (as Jamie recurringly relays) and feels hopelessly out of touch. She figures she had a kid too late, and will, as a result, never be able to complement his needs as adeptly as she’d like to. He’s growing up in a world where young people worship punk heroes and manifesto toting intellectuals; she grew up in a world where merely surviving was the utmost priority in one’s life – there wasn’t time to rebel and there wasn’t time tackle ennui head on. Jamie struggles to understand Dorothea and Dorothea struggles to understand Jamie. And that scares her.
So she, without making her intentions clear, enlists the help of the two other women of the house, Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), to help raise Jamie in the ways she feels incapable of overseeing herself. Both women, luminous and promising as they are, though, are perhaps too distracted by their own problems to make such aspirations come to the idealistic fruition Dorothea’s looking for.
Julie is a troubled 17-year-old who interminably gets high and laid to cover the emotional scars left on her by a deficient family life that’s prompted her to platonically sleep over with Jamie almost every night. Abbie is a radical 24-year-old photographer recovering from cervical cancer and wondering how her recent personal setback is going to affect her professional ambitions. How Dorothea figures either woman is going to help Jamie grow up to become a great man is perplexing, maybe even humorous because it’s such a dizzy scheme (if you can even call it one).
Twentieth Century Women, aimless and emotionally tumultuous, is the third film of Mike Mills, the writer/director who first captured critical attention with black comedy
Thumbsucker (2004) and then stepped into the Oscar conversation with Beginners (2011), the deeply moving family drama that won Christopher Plummer an Oscar for playing a 75-year-old man who comes out of the closet to his grown son. Like Beginners, 20th Century Women is semi-autobiographical for its maker. Beginners is about his father, and 20th Century Women is about his mother.
But whereas Beginners was a focused, heartwarming account of renewed familial affinity and of the painful inevitabilities that come with death, 20th Century Women, essentially without conflict, climax, or resolution, is scattered and fragmented, like a memory or a quickly pieced-together scrapbook.
Mills is welcoming of the untidiness – he doesn’t want emotional responses to arise between the travelings from plot point A to plot point B. He’s more interested in seeing how we take to his assemblage of characters, who are, without a doubt, the film’s most remarkable facets. These are the kind of fictional individuals, so hard to find in our ever crowded cinematic landscape, that think and breathe and feel; immediately after we meet them do we determine that they’ll stick with us far longer than anything else in the film.
And that people over story sentiment is both 20th Century Women’s biggest strength and greatest weakness. One can suppose that it has to be foundationally strewn – it is, after all, capturing a year in the life of five fickle entities who don’t know what the hell they want out of their respective existences – but one can also suppose that Mills’ unwillingness to let traditional structuring make its way onto the scene prevents us from becoming as immersed in the movie as we’d like to. We adore the characters living their lives in front of us, but we never feel like much more than passing friends if only because their motivations are mounted with scattershot energy rather than intimate precision.
But our attachment toward 20th Century Women’s ensemble is enough to warrant impassioned commendation. Bening, incandescent and robbed of a deserved Oscar nomination, stuns as a woman so infatuated with providing her son with what she perceives to be the “best” upbringing that she ultimately loses sight of her own worth – and that a woman of a certain age can cinematically be represented not as an all-knowing mother but an always questioning flibbertigibbet is invigorating. Zumann, only 14, holds his own against heavyweights; Billy Crudup, as the former hippie who never much matured past his own “Make Love, Not War” days, steals scenes with his humorous evasion of societal conformity.
But it’s Fanning and Gerwig, actresses who grow more fascinating with every onscreen performance, who make the heftiest impression.
Fanning, only 18, has proven herself as one of her generation’s gutsiest performers – her filmography’s seen her playing a transgender teenager in About Ray (2015) and it’s also seen her portraying a would-be supermodel in auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological thriller The Neon Demon (2016). Fanning rarely takes on a role that doesn’t propose a challenge, and her characterization in 20th Century Women is no exception. She’s alternately hilarious and poignant as a wild child simultaneously attracted to trouble and general familial stability like a moth to the flame.
Gerwig, the independent film goddess quietly making waves in the industry, is 20th Century Women’s most touching character – she wants to be an artistic iconoclast and a youthquake who stands out in the crowd, but the setbacks that have infested her prospects have forced her creative appetite to come second to simply staying alive. The movie finds her at her most vulnerable, and as a result does she become its most riveting character. Unlike the individuals constantly surrounding her, she’s forever at odds with the person she is and the person she wants to be. Gerwig makes that uncertainty thrilling.
But in essence are all the performers in 20th Century Women thrilling – finding the emotional cruxes of their parts with exceptional detail, we, without fail, connect with Dorothea, Jamie, Julie, Abbie, and William and maybe even see a little bit of ourselves in them, in their unending attempts to figure out who they really are. One can wish that Mills’ approach were less mosaic and more orthodox. The material would benefit from forthrightness. But there’s a lot to love in 20th Century Women, and, like life, its imperfections make it shimmer all the more. B+