20th Century Women is a semi-autographical film set in the 70’s sharing the story of a divorced older woman raising her son with the help of two other young women. The description of the characters were appealing and I am a fan of Annette Bening who plays the lead role in the movie. The presentation quickly draws you into the relationships; those connections were entirely realistic and successful.
In 1979, Dorothea (Annette Bening) is raising her fifteen year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). She is divorced and her ex-husband has moved east, leaving the two of them alone. Dorothea is older, having had Jamie when she was forty and she struggles to connect with him as he grows older. She wants to help him become a good man but while she tries to be remain cool, she only pushes him further away. So she enlists the help of the people in their lives to help her teach him.
She recruits Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig) a sophisticated photographer who rents a room in their home and Julie (Elle Fanning) a provocative friend of Jamie’s. Along the way, each of them teach Jamie various lessons on what it is to be a man but also illustrate what it is to be a woman in the twentieth century. Besides the influence of the women in Jamie’s life, both the women and Jamie are impacted by William (Billy Crudup) a mechanic and artist who also rents space in Dorothea’s house.
The movie explores the interactions between Jamie and his mother, the impact all three women have on him and the connections between the five of them. One of the questions asked, is does it take a man to raise a man? Quite truthfully, this film dispels this notion soundly. The women teach Jamie a great deal, both helping him to become more empathic to the people in his life but Dorothea also has the wisdom to allow him to experience different aspects of the world, whether she can completely understand all those elements herself.
There are some beautiful and insightful moments. Dorothea tells her son that having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world. He learns this lesson during his time with Julie. Julie’s honesty with him over her experiences with other men teaches him what women desire but also help him figure out what he wants from the relationship. Abbie shares with him books on feminism and encourages him to flirt with older women, giving him tips on how to seduce them. William has nothing in common with Jamie but shows by example how to love women. There is also a moment where William and Dorothea dance, just taking pleasure in the movement. Dorothea learns from Jamie that despite being older, she has value, that her worth is not predicated on being with a man or just in being a mother.
Setting the movie in the seventies aids the viewer in understanding the relationships between both mother and son as well as the dynamics between all three women. The film would have had much less impact set in a different time period and Dorothea would not have been quite as quirky a character or so original. The authenticity of the time period lends a wealth of realism to the interactions between the characters. I think any of us who grew up in the era will appreciate the changes that took place during the time and those changes are part of what create the tension between Dorothea and Jamie as well as being part of what sculpts Jamie into the person he will become. And same elements allow them to find a moment of connection and resolution by the end of the movie.
The dialogue in this film is particularly funny, poignant, and quirky. Parts of the movie are told in voiceover, Jamie telling us about the women and Dorothea sharing his story. He says of his mother, she loves Camels because she thinks their healthier and wears Birkenstocks because she thinks they’re stylish. Those pieces of information give us insight into the characters and also provide connections to events later in the film. Just as Jamie says of his mother, that she is impossible to describe, so too is it impossible to share all the great dialogue in this film.
Beyond the dialogue, the acting is exceptional. Annette Bening is stellar, her performance authentic. All of the actors were especially good, giving realistic portrayals of each character and their performances along with the dialogue are what pull you through the movie. This is a film about people who are meant to feel real and the acting pulls this off.
I did feel lost at the beginning of the movie, however. The first scene introduces us to Dorothea and Jamie. However, the rest of the characters are thrown at you without explanation. Eventually, they are introduced but it did leave me without a frame of reference for them until that introduction happened.
I also felt that the film was disjointed in places, as though there was too much going on. Some of the elements work. There are some photo montages that work excellently to give a flavor of the time period but there are also points where there are scenes that don’t feel quite necessary to the movie as a whole. There are rainbow effects that are done when Jamie travels to Los Angeles and again later in the film that seem to be only there for effect. I felt these could have been left out without changing the movie at all. Because of little details like this, the movie felt slow. Despite these technicalities, however, the movie ended with an emotional punch and I liked it..
If you’ve ever struggled to connect in a parent-child bond or like emotional movies about relationships, I think this movie is well worth seeing. The acting is beyond exceptional. The dialogue will make you laugh and there is a realism to this film that is rarely seen. Annette Bening alone is worth the trip to the theatre.
Rating: 4 stars
20TH CENTURY WOMEN, acclaimed filmmaker Mike Mills (the Academy Award®-winning BEGINNERS) brings us a richly multilayered, funny, heart-stirring celebration of the complexities of women, family, time and the connections we search for our whole lives. It is a film that keeps redefining itself as it goes along, shifting with its characters as they navigate the pivotal summer of 1979.
Set in Santa Barbara, the film follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, in a breakout performance) at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women in Jamie’s upbringing – via Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields’ home, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor.
Mills expertly recreates the warmth and passion of a great memory – but also the urgency and energy of three generations in the throes of momentous transition. Bening gives one of her very best performances as Dorothea, conveying with subtle yet tremendous emotional power both her unconditional love for her son and her increasing bewilderment about the world she is watching him enter. Gerwig, Fanning and Billy Crudup all do outstanding work, creating complex, unique characters who each contribute in crucial ways to Jamie’s upbringing. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is a poignant love letter to the people who raise us – and the times that form us – as this makeshift family forges fragile connections that will mystify, haunt and inspire them through their lives.
Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Written and directed by: Mike Mills (BEGINNERS)