“20th Century Women” is a movie about the time nexus of Santa Barbara in the summer of 1979 and a young man named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) becoming an experiment. Dorothea (Annette Bening), Jamie’s 56 year old mother feels a yawning generational gap between her and the 16 year old Jamie. Faced with the emergence of punk, the lingering free spirited drug use of the hippies and the post war existential crisis of the American male; the infinitely wise and carefully distant Dorothea (Bening) decides to enlist the cross section of generations of women in Jamie’s life to collectively raise him. Partnering with their housemate Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a twenty-something photographer and feminist with a messy whip of short red hair; and Julie, Jamie’s sixteen year old long-time friend and Therapist’s daughter railing against her over-psychoanalysis by living a life of impulse and unprotected teen sex.
Writer/director Mike Mills has crafted a formally beautiful and rich story where the female characters progress but resist the urge to become predictable or less complex throughout our time with them. Mills develops a rhythm to introduce the lives of the central characters that becomes something that you look forward to throughout the film. Beginning with title cards with their names and birth dates, in voice over and a mash-up of archival footage and wonderfully organic photography, that ensnares you because of the vibrant and non-actor faces and fashions; we get a sense of their lives surrounding this time. These moments we’re provoked to engage more deeply with the characters' whole life and where they are in it in this movie.
In one character’s voice over we come to terms with their future death. It’s in this precise approach that our grip tightens on this moment. We, like the characters, are never going to get this time again and so instead of attempting to look beyond the film, you’ll find yourself being in this moment in every way. The coastal kaleidoscopic car rides tie ribbons of light between the locations of the film. Other than a beautiful and aesthetically era defining representation, they also double as a bow that contains the movie. Dorothea’s home is a classic old dame of a home that’s in a perpetual state of repair. Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie and William call her home, while Julie also spends most nights there as she enters via the scaffolding permanently erected on the outside of the house.
Bening is divine as Dorothea. She has a magisterial quality in her home. Conducting her gatherings with the precision of a ‘Stepford Wife’ but with the guest list titled ‘Bohemian meets Bourgeoisie.’ Dorothea is experiencing her son’s youth slip through her fingers over the course of the summer. Bening is able to deliver a performance that shows her resistance to relinquishing the grip on Jamie and not surrendering to dumping the minutiae of her feelings on him as Abbie may. It’s perhaps the finest performance of her entire career. Lucas Jade Zumann’s Jamie’s innocence and obliviousness is not going to last the summer. He’s curious, respectful and he’s caught in a state of flux as his mother maintains the distance between them. He’s attempting to penetrate her emotions and get a sense of her feelings and she refuses to relinquish the grip on herself. Zumann does a superb job holding his own amongst this terrific troupe that surround him.
Gerwig’s Abbie picks up her lost heroine, denying contemporary ennui from “Frances Ha” and transports her back in time, ready to bare her teeth. Gerwig continues to be a joy in every role and it’s fun to watch her be an aggressive feminist not afraid to get in a fist fights, smash some furniture or coach a group of dinner guests on how to pronounce “Menstration.” Abbie feels the best way that Jamie can become a better man is to be exposed to feminist literature, learning about the female anatomy and teaching him the finer details of interaction with women for the most effective seduction. Elle Fanning’s Julie is that maddening girl for a young teenage man because in one moment you’re following the same path and in a split second she’s quantum leaps ahead of you in emotional and physical development; and somehow develops the deduction skills of a police interrogator.
Billy Crudup’s William is a conflicted mechanic, newly emerged from the rabbit hole of commune life and a broken partnership. Crudup looks sensational in the role. He’s trim, an unkempt, and reminiscent of his most iconic role - no not the often naked and blue Dr. Manhattan in the “Watchmen” - Russell from “Almost Famous.” He’s got a meditative flow in the film that glows through every movement and quietly sincere gesture.
When “20th Century Women” ends, it’s not with the same air of hope and possibility. That’s after all, not its purpose. Instead it finds an essential shared moment in time where these great characters converge. As the credits roll, we’re tragically aware of time slipping away. To paraphrase some Bogart, ‘we’ll always have Santa Barbara in ’79.’
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.