We watched 20th Century Women after the Women’s March on January 21, and it was an inspiring second bill. Despite its title, Mike Mills’ movie doesn’t pretend to capture all women from the last century, or even all women from Santa Barbara, 1979 (where he sets his story). His movie looks to understand three very specific women, all of whom shaped a fifteen-year-old boy nearing manhood. Mills has stepped up his game from his previous movie Beginners (which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for). This movie is more expansive in scope, more daring in its characterization, and more discursive and curious. After immortalizing his late-blooming gay dad in Beginners, Mills uses this movie to look closely, lovingly, at his unconventional mother. It feels true, and I suspect most of it is.
Our lead, fifteen-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), lives in a sprawling California house permanently under refurbishment with his kooky mother and two housemates: hunky, mustachioed handyman William (Billy Crudup), and manic pixie-ish photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dorothea (the seemingly ageless Annette Bening) struggles as a single mother to understand Jamie, and she asks Abbie and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help.
When Abbie gives Jamie a Feminism 101 primer, to educate him on women, he takes to it with avid fascination. It’s encouraging and heartbreaking to watch him peruse the book, captivated by this broader perspective on the feminine experience. But Mills doesn’t pretend this intellectualism is an easy fix: Jamie reads a chapter on older women out loud to his mom, to her dismay. Just because he’s read those words doesn’t mean he understands her better, she tells him. Bening is striking in this scene: she’s quietly affronted, holding back emotionally, and we can tell some of it rings true.
Mills’ script flirts with not being linear. Like a college honors thesis, he cites the source material of his youth; clips spanning Koyaanisqatsi to Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech intersect with the story. I say story instead of plot because, well, there isn’t really one. I can’t tell if this is a movie that feels richer or shallower on second viewing. I suspect the first one. There’s a wistful aimlessness that mirrors a year of social uncertainty. Like Jimmy Carter declared on national TV, growing doubt rippled through Americans. Dorothea has to face up to her love life (or disinterest in one); Abbie’s recovering from a battle with cancer and her parents’ difficulty coping with it. Jamie’s drawn to Julie, but she’s not in love with him.
These characters all search for a broader context, something that grounds and guides them. How should one treat, relate to, love a woman, Jamie wonders. There’s lots of humor along the way, including a great scene where Abbie encourages all the men present to say menstruation, while Dorothea protests. She wants her son to learn, but not learn too much too soon. Needless to say, the five main actors all ease into their 1979 alter egos with ease. Zumann (a relative newcomer) gives an incredibly assured performance with Fanning, Gerwig, Crudup every bit his equals. And what to say about Annette Bening? You sense she’s lived every moment of Dorothea’s life herself, in one way or another. Bening doesn’t make too many movies, and when she does, it’s like she’s giving a little, undiscovered piece of herself away.