It’s amazing how useful a high concept can be, at least when it comes to spreading the word about a movie. For instance, Arrival can easily be described as “a woman must learn an alien language in order to save the world” and while that is a gross oversimplification it certainly gets the attention of the person you’re talking to and gives them an idea what they’re into and makes them want to hear more. It works for movies that are basically grounded character studies as well, for instance the fact that Moonlight has that tryptic structure gives it a distinctive little hook that makes it easier to convey something that’s special about it real quick. When a movie doesn’t have a catchy little hook things can get a little harder explain. Take the new film 20th Century Women for example: when someone asks what that’s about you stuck fumbling though this long explanation about how it’s this movie set in the late 70s with this unconventional family with a single mother and a tenant and this teenage son who feels things and… etc etc. That’s a mouthful and I suspect it will limit the movie’s audience, but it is a movie that’s worth considering so give me a minute to explain all of this.
The film is set in Santa Barbra in 1979 and focuses in on a mother and son. The mother is named Dorothea (Annette Benning), who had her son relatively late in life and divorced her ex-husband not long after. She has something of a free spirited attitude and raises her son in a somewhat unconventional way. That son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is now fifteen and entering into that age when teenagers generally withdraw from their parents and she begins to worry about his well-being after an incident where he’s hurt taking part in a dangerous choking game. In response she approaches his childhood friend, who is emphatically not a girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning) as well as a tenant living in the house whom Jamie admires named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and asks that they sort of help out in his upbringing in certain ways. This is a rather vague and unusual request and the two react to it a bit differently. Also in the mix is a guy named William (Billy Crudup) who has been helping with some construction on the house, and he sort of interacts with the characters in various ways as well.
20th Century Women was written and directed by Mike Mills who is probably best known for helming the 2010 film Beginners. That movie is probably most notable for a performance in it by Christopher Plummer, which earned the veteran actor a long overdue Oscar. Otherwise though, I found that movie to be fairly forgettable and I can’t say I was expecting a whole lot more from Mills’ follow-up. However, 20th Century Women seems to be something of a refinement of the style that Mills explored in that previous movie. Both employ vaguely wistful voice-overs and both also use cutaways both to fill in past events and also to give the film a vaguely collage feel at times. All of that is handled a lot better this time around and the film adds to that an interest in rich period detail. The movie makes a very big point of the fact that it’s set in 1979, which seems to be a year that was very carefully chosen. This was after all the year Kramer Vs. Kramer came out, divorce was slowly becoming a fact of American life but it wasn’t quite the norm yet and a family like this was still certainly a bit outside of the absolute mainstream. What’s more that hippie spirit was still sort of alive, certainly in Santa Barbara at least, and the punk scene (which was decidedly post-punk at this point) was still providing something of a counter-cultural voice albeit a lot more faintly than it used to.
The film thrives in its ability to create unique characters and give them interesting dynamics between one another. Central to the movie of course is the relationship between the mother and the son. Dorothea is introduced as a child of the depression who is in her 50s as the movie opens. She’s way less judgmental and more permissive than you’d expect from someone of that generation and has a bit of the hippie to her. There are limits to this open mindedness however and she can be a bit smothering at times and Annette Benning does a solid job of hitting this balancing act. Under her guidance her son has grown to be a fairly open minded if somewhat passive teenager, albeit one with the usual angst for someone of his age. Then there’s the Abbie character who is involved in the punk scene but also has a bit of a depressive side to her as she’s recovering from cervical cancer as the film begins. Her attempts to help “raise” Jamie are interesting if a touch comical at times like her decision that he needs to read her copy of “Our Bodies Our Selves.” Gretta Gerwig, an actress who has somehow managed to avoid playing a girlfriend in a superhero movie thus far, gives one of her best performances here and breaks with the borderline typecasting she was starting to fall into. Finally there’s Elle Fanning’s Julie, who has an interesting relationship with Jamie in that she insists on being “just friends” with him despite the fact that he clearly has a crush on her and she interacts with him in semi-intimate ways that a “just friend” normally would not.
At times 20th Century Women started to feel like it was going to just be a collection of really well drawn characters with no real movie to actually fit them all, but I do think it ultimately comes together at the end and justifies itself. In many ways the movie seems to be presenting a vision of a world where everyone sort of behaves exactly the way third wave feminism wants them to: the women talk openly about their inner womanly thoughts (often to the point of oversharing), the men listen intently and spend a lot of time thinking about the women’s feelings, no one is slut shamed, and single motherhood is only a moderate challenge. It seems like a pretty pleasant world, but it also kind of rings a little false at times; like a vision of an imagined utopia rather than the real world where people don’t share all their feelings like this and people aren’t as receptive of advice. In this sense the film is almost like a vigorous defense for building a pleasant bubble around yourself and your family (whatever form that may take) even if it can only last so long. The film is breezy but impactful and it was ultimately a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with these people.