20th Century Women
20TH CENTURY WOMEN, drama, rated R; Violet Crown, Center for Contemporary Arts; 3.5 chiles
Writer-director Mark Mills is working his way through his family. He paid tribute to his father in the wry and loving Beginners (2010), which chronicled that parent’s coming out late in life as gay, and won a late-in-life Oscar for Christopher Plummer.
Now it’s his mother’s turn, and this affectionate, funny, and kaleidoscopic portrait could set Annette Bening up to contend for the same prize. The film takes place primarily in 1979, when Mills was a California teenager, and explores the raising of fifteenyear-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) by his single mother Dorothea (Bening), with input from a couple of younger women: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the punk scarlet-haired twenty-something photographer who boards in their rambling Santa Barbara house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), seventeen, Jamie’s best friend since childhood, who likes to climb in his window to crawl into bed with him — but with no fooling around. When he tries to slide a hand up under her skirt as they sprawl together on his bed, she pushes it away. “It was easier when you were younger,” she remarks. “Before you got horny.”
This is a coming-of-age story in which all the characters, whatever their ages, seem to be coming to grips with themselves and exploring who they are. “Age,” Jamie declares, “is a bourgeois construct.” Mills uses flashbacks to establish a context for his characters, as well as reaching forward to acknowledge a world that they can’t yet imagine, a world of internet and digital technology, and a time when we know the fates and futures of the household members. This intermingling of past, present, and future creates a funny, bittersweet, and knowing aura of nostalgia.
Dorothea smokes like a chimney, another nod to an earlier time. When Jamie calls her on the cigarettes, she excuses the habit by saying, “When I started they weren’t bad for you, they were just stylish.” Dorothea was born in 1925 and raised in the Depression, a period which Mills evokes with newsreel footage, and her cultural world was formed by Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller, and Bogart movies with a cigarette dangling from every lip. She didn’t have Jamie until she was forty, so she finds herself groping her way through the complexities of raising a male child in a punk-rock culture she doesn’t understand.
“Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” Julie asks when Dorothea solicits her help with her son. “I don’t think so,” Dorothea replies. There is one man in this haphazard picture, an ex-hippie named William (Billy Crudup) who fixes things around the house, and provides what little adult male influence Jamie gets in his life. William’s presence adds to the irony of Dorothea’s observation that “men always feel like they have to fix things for women,” when, she says, really all they have to do is be there.
Being there is something Jamie’s father has not managed to do. So Jamie is raised by women, and the adult Mark Mills, looking back on the human comedy that was his adolescence, concludes that for all the missteps and embarrassments and trial-and-error, the education was essentially a pretty good one. It gave him a deep respect for women, and put him in touch with his feminine side. This is a perspective that can occasionally get Jamie in trouble with his peers, as when he tries to lecture another boy on how to sexually satisfy a woman and gets a bloody nose for his trouble. Jamie reads feminist literature, but he also gets tips from Julie on how to walk and talk like a man.
Music, as it always does in a culture, provides a touchstone for distinguishing past from present. There’s a lot of punk and post-punk (a distinction that may be lost on the older audience for this movie). Listening to Jamie’s record player blaring the Raincoats, Dorothea says, “They know they’re terrible, right?” And Jamie explains that part of the point is to have “passion that’s greater than the tools you have to deal with it.”
Mills has the tools to deal with this lovely, often hilarious thank-you letter to the women who raised him, especially his mother. The wonderful Bening can separate a single expression into multiple chapters. She is flat-out superb, and the others don’t trail far behind. Fanning is luminous as a teen exploring her sexuality but retaining a radiant innocence, and Gerwig finds new levels of talent as the bruised but not broken young woman with plenty of problems but a zest for life. And Crudup brings a gentle lost sweetness to his role as the man of the house.
— Jonathan Richards
What women want: Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann