“20th Century Women” (2016) Review

Dir. Mike Mills; Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning

[3 out of 4 stars]

I’ve been trying to strike the right consumption balance during this pandemic. While staying at home, I’ve watched a variety of TV shows and films in search of something that is not too dark and depressing (hello, Boys Don’t Cry [1999]) nor too fluffy and trivial (rewatching The Office [2005-2013] for the gazillionth time). 20th Century Women (2016) is the closest I’ve come to hitting that mark. It’s sad at moments, but in a poignant way, and it’s bright and well acted. I just wanted to like it more than I actually did. 

The setting is Santa Barbara in 1979. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a 50-something single mother raising her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) on her own. Well, not completely on her own — she is surrounded by a ragtag group of misfits who rent rooms in her enormous, ramshackle house. There’s Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer; William (Billy Crudup), a carpenter and mechanic; and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend who does not live with the group but often sleeps over. The air feels pregnant with social change and rebellion, and Dorothea senses that Jamie is growing up. She feels that she needs help raising him, so she asks Abbie and Julie to help guide him, in some sort of loose, ill-defined way. They bring him into their lives; he accompanies them to personal doctor’s appointments, Abbie takes him dancing at clubs, and they talk about relationships. 

The film seems entirely like a memory, a specific snapshot in time, a story that could only have taken place in 1979. Much of this sense comes through voiceovers by various characters. They often sound as if they could have been spoken either years in the future, looking back on this time, or in the moment, as if the characters are muddling through what is happening and trying to make sense of it. At one point, when Dorothea learns about Jamie’s taste in punk music, the voiceover says, “It’s 1979, I’m fifty-five years old, this is what my son believes in. These people with this hair and these clothes making these gestures, making these sounds. It’s 1979, I’m 55 years old, and in 1999 I will die of cancer from the smoking.” This realization seems to happen in a second, to speak to a specific individual moment in Dorothea’s life. Near the end of the film, the characters reveal how their futures will play out. For example, William says, “I’ll live with Dorothea for another year. Then I’ll open a pottery store in Sedona Arizona. I will marry Laurie, a singer-songwriter. We’ll get divorced in a year. Then I’ll meet Sandy, we will marry, and I will continue to do my pottery.” This style imbues the film with a sort of golden glow, as if we too are looking back on this period with nostalgia and fond memories. We see this story in relation to the past (Dorothea is “from the Depression,” as Jamie says) as well as the future. 

Much of 20th Century Women’s strength comes from its actors, who really drive its movement and growth. Bening is perfectly cast and drifts carefully from hapless to competent or content to depressed as the film progresses. Dorothea is a complicated character, and just as Bening often narrows her eyes while listening, trying to figure people out, we find ourselves trying to figure her out. William once asks her what she liked about her ex-husband, and she pauses for some time, looking puzzled. All she can come up with is, “He could write with his left hand and scratch my back with his right.” But the weight with which Bening delivers the line makes it seem as if her husband had given her the world. In scenes like these, we catch fleeting glimpses of deep emotion that allow Dorothea to appear like a fully developed character. Gerwig also gives an especially strong performance here; the character of Abbie is a stock free spirit-type, with bright red hair and colorful, flowing clothes. But Gerwig gives Abbie some intensity, delivering lines with passion. My favorite scene of hers is when she introduces Jamie to the Raincoats, and Dorothea, walking by, asks, “What is that? … they’re not very good, and they know that, right?” Abbie responds, “Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling, and they don’t have any skill, and they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?” As she talks, she gestures fervently, and we can see her becoming absorbed in her enthusiasm; much more is conveyed about how Abbie is feeling through Gerwig’s body language than through the words she is speaking. 

Despite its strengths, 20th Century Women never felt entirely real to me. Much of this feeling was the result of the script, which sometimes verged out of realistic and into overly self-aware. In one voiceover, Jamie explains that his mom “smokes Salems because they’re healthier, wears Birkenstocks because she’s contemporary,” accompanied by an onscreen photo of Salem cigarettes and Birkenstocks. There are ways to show viewers these things about Dorothea without telling us so formally. Such moments break the flow of the film and our investment in these characters because we remember that they are, in fact, characters rather than real people. At other times, the script appears overly done: for instance, Abbie confides in Jamie at a critical moment that “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not gonna be anything like that.” It’s a cliché line in a coming-of-age story that is unnecessary; the lesson has already been taught through Abbie’s actions, and saying it feels too heavy handed. Moments like these disrupt an otherwise entertaining and poignant story. 

I would love to see 20th Century Women re-made now, set in our current era. Perhaps some of my discontent about the script stems from its desire to connect younger viewers who weren’t alive during the 70s to that time period (does Jamie feel the need to explain what Salems are because no one smokes them now? Would we otherwise not know that Birkenstocks were contemporary in the 70s?) I’m not entirely sure. But at moments, the film feels very modern and of a piece with discussions we have today: Dorothea deciding that you don’t “need a man to raise a man,” Jamie getting in a fistfight about clitoral stimulation, Jamie trying to explain to his mom that he’s “not all men.” But maybe that’s the point; even though the film is firmly rooted in 1970s California, the wave of feminism sweeping the country ignited new ideas that continue to evolve and that connect the two time periods to one another so that 20th Century Women still manages to feel relevant.

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