20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
Opens December 28
All of the main characters in 20th Century Women, a fond time capsule of a film set in sun-kissed Santa Barbara at the tail end of the 70s, sleep under the same roof, though as domestic arrangements go, this one’s far from typical. Single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), call the manse home more permanently, but the rest of the occupants just happen to be passing through: punk tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), whose life has recently been sideswiped by cervical cancer; New Agey handyman William (Billy Crudup), who by day is helping renovate the house; and Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who regularly sneaks upstairs to sleep with him (literally, not euphemistically, speaking, much to Jamie’s chagrin). Although much of the action revolves around the increasingly reckless Jamie—a sort of stand-in for writer-director Mike Mills, here following up 2011’s Beginners with a more successful (if sometimes equally precious) autobiographical family story—20th Century Women is less bildungsroman about the teenager himself than a shambling ode to his unlikely constellation of role models.
As she feels herself growing further apart from her son, Dorothea enlists Abbie and Julie, in particular, to keep tabs on him (never mind that Julie is, at 17, nearly Jamie’s peer, and more rebellious than him on top of that). This amorphous assignment passes for the basis of the plot, making clear from the get-go that Mills prefers giving these people a simple narrative pretext in which to coexist—so they have ample space to discuss big subjects such as sex and feminism and mortality—over mobilizing them toward any predetermined dramatic ends. As such, 20th Century Women feels wonderfully lived-in and laid-back, though the film occasionally lapses into faux-naïve interludes that undercut its otherwise assured theme: the handing down of hard-won wisdom. In Mills’s most grating stylistic gambit, copious stock images, some of them in noticeably low-resolution form and accompanied by slightly dazed voiceover, illustrate cutesy-reductive character backstories.
It is the performances, though, that ultimately ground the film, particularly that by Bening—a marvelous piece of work that deserves all the awards buzz coming to it. The actress presides over the movie with a matriarch’s grand conviction that her way is the right way, while also displaying a mischievous streak (you can see it around the edges, in the insouciant way she drags on her cigarettes, and in the offhand invitations to dinner that she extends to strangers) that keeps her open to trying new things. But the younger generations are well represented here too. Fanning plays Julie, the daughter of a therapist, as willowy and a bit aloof, possessed of a preternatural poise that has enchanted Jamie and left Dorothea with no real choice but to recruit the girl to her cause. Meanwhile, Gerwig carries the film’s most vulnerable moments, with the feminist Abbie undergoing a sort of quarter-life crisis, back in her hometown against her will and now told that her “incompetent cervix” might prevent her from ever carrying a pregnancy to term. These are people who need each other, even if they don’t fully see it themselves. In one scene, Dorothea comes upon Abbie introducing Jamie to a record by the Raincoats and asks what on earth they’re listening to. Abbie takes a stab at defending the music: She says you can hear that the band’s passion outweighs their ability to express it with their instruments, and that therein lies its appeal. At its best, 20th Century Women conveys that the wider world is itself so much noise, be it harsh or glorious, and that there’s no hope of making sense of the racket without the help of others.