Annette Bening is Dorothea. “She was in the Great Depression,” her
son Jamie would say to explain away certain eccentricities. It's true,
as it explains everything and nothing in one fell swoop. Earlier in the
film, he paints a more fulfilling, if scattered, verbal portrait of his
mid-fifties mom: “She writes down her stocks every morning. She smokes
Salems because they’re healthier. She wears Birkenstocks because she’s
contemporary. She read Watership Down and learned how to carve rabbits out of wood. And she never dates a man for very long.”
Bening has a greying, disheveled head of hair, and does indeed
smoke like a chimney. Her character is persistent in enabling her and
her son’s survival, yet completely at sea in the changing world all
around her. She’s open minded, but she’ll never “get” punk rock. It will
get her, though. She’s a
proactive woman stuck in a reactionary role. It’s a laser-like
performance by Bening, one of the year's best.
The punk rock revolution is brought into the house by pink-haired,
punky cancer-sufferer Abbie, played exceptionally by Greta Gerwig. Abbie is a fragile and self-absorbed photographer/artist who’s
already dismissed her own future. She clings to of-the-moment feminism
and feminist theory, although she’s not militant about it. Her influence
on Jamie is palpable and amusing; who knows how formative it will be.
Abbie’s sleeping with William, a man’s man and earth-mother all rolled
into one sweaty, lusty, handyman mechanic/hippie (Billy Crudup). He could do better for himself if he’d learn to
trust and commit. And maybe laugh at himself. For obvious reasons, he’s
not a '20th century woman.' Yet, here he is. He’s got a wandering eye
that betrays his soulful qualities, but those are ever undercut by his
New Age and clairvoyant-y comments. He gets laughed at, but he’s also
getting laid. And none of it is getting him anywhere.
William is dismissed as a possible father figure for Jamie (Lucas
Jade Zumann). He is clearly the crux of the film. "I know him less every day," Dorothea
matter-of-factly tells us. As an emerging young man in a wildly matriarchal West Coast
household, his tendencies toward contemporary feminism and the arty side
of punk rock (lots of early Talking Heads music) are also unique
qualities among his friends. He soaks it all up and holds his own
surprisingly well, particularly amid his hormonal frustrations with
Julie, a pretty young broken flower played by Elle Fanning.
She regularly enters Jamie's bedroom through his second story window,
spending the night in his bed. It's all purely platonic, much to his
libidinous chagrin. She's out there messing around with other guys, then
decompressing about her unsatisfactory exploits to him. Trapped forever
in a very rigid "friend zone," he wants to both help her and have her.
Again, the film gets this tension just right.
The pop culture and societal tapestry that informs the world of 20th Century Women
is vital and well woven. Beautiful asides from sources ranging from
Judy Blume to Jimmy Carter, with an assist from the great film Koyaaniqatsi,
carry weight that makes their resonance in this world relatable.
With 20th Century Women, writer-director Mike Mills
has delivered one of the great late surprises of the year.
Funny, resonant, universal but specific, the film may not always be
comfortable, but that's what makes this coming of age
semi-autobiographical piece worth seeing. Do not miss this messed-up,
ugly, gloriously intoxicating American beauty. You won't be sorry.