Reviewed by Selma Thompson
“Let’s go out tonight. I want to see this ‘modern world’.” In the role of her career, Annette Bening offers that impishly ironic challenge as Dorothea, a 55 year old, single working mother determined to understand the Cultural Revolution upending 1979 Santa Barbara, California in Mike Mills’s riveting new film, 20th Century Women.
This funny, poignant, semi-autobiographical celebration of the complicated mother who raised writer/director Mills–and Mills’s own adolescence in the glory days of feminism and punk (Lucas Jade Zumann in a breakout performance as Jamie)–is a follow-up to the highly acclaimed, Beginners, a movie inspired by Mills’s father coming out of the closet late in life. Once again with 20th Century Women, Mills gifts us with his powerful understanding of how time and place shape us, creating memorable moments between complex characters played by a stellar cast who make the most of the opportunity.
We learn through wry voice-over and well chosen old stills that Dorothea is a survivor of another era—a lady shaped by The Depression, who trained as a WWII female cargo pilot, ended up one of the few career women working at a drafting table, married late to a long gone ex-husband, and became a mother at 40. Like many who’ve survived by their wits, Dorothea seems to live in a perpetual state of thoughtful bemusement. It’s worth the cost of a movie ticket, for example, just to see Bening’s expressive face when Dorothea’s granted the aforementioned night out, and brings an open mind to the new wave noise at the local rock club. Bening’s Dorothea is comfortable in her slightly wrinkled skin, vibrant and sexy in her own way—she’s not trying to relive her youth, and the moment is not played for easy laughs because the stakes are quite high. Jamie is 15 and about to enter this modern world, which, despite her research attempts, his mother can never truly know.
Which is why it makes sense to Dorothea to seek help overseeing Jamie’s transition into adulthood by assembling a kitchen cabinet of advisers-they really do meet at her kitchen table, in a room painted the perfectly garish primary colors of the late 70s, in a perpetually under renovation house/investment Dorothea is gentrifying like many a real estate pioneer of her era. The goal, Dorothea explains, is to help Jamie become a “good man…whatever that is nowadays…”
Jamie’s puzzled but politely willing mentors will include Abbie, a 20-something, pink-haired, feminist-quoting, photographer who’ll teach Jamie the difference between Black Flag and Talking Heads, and how to pick up girls who think he’s too young by murmuring that “age is just a bourgeois construct”. Greta Gerwig brings a fierce physical intensity to this role, her Abbie all self-consciously transgressive attitude and heart, without a hint of 21st Century manic-pixie-dreamgirl. Gerwig has never been better.
And then there’s Julie (a deliciously deadpan, bored but never boring, Elle Fanning). A childhood friend who’s grown up with Jamie, Julie spends every possible moment at Dorothea’s house because her own mother is even more clueless and far less kind—a therapist who entraps her daughter in group therapy circles for teenage girls (another perfectly noted evocation of 1970s “progressive” torture as observed by Mills). Julie’s invaluable contributions to Jamie’s development will include tutelage on how to smoke with more machismo, and sneaking into his bed at night for platonic comfort.
Billy Crudup rounds out the cast as William, the sexy, silent, old hippie who seems happiest working on Dorothea’s house, and most perplexed when dealing with the modern women who pursue him. Even a kid like James has the maturity to see that this lost, gentle soul is no use as a male role model.
Dorothea’s plan for raising Jamie by committee makes a kind of demented sense as we are immersed in a 1970s world where the old institutions have fallen apart and people bravely construct DIY families to see them through. Just as Fanning’s Julie takes refuge in this sprawling old house, and Crudup is happy to be its live-in carpenter, Gerwig’s Abbie rents a room in Dorothea’s rundown mansion because life with her own mother has gotten too intense. Abbie is being treated for the cancer that was caused by her mother taking “miracle” fertility drugs in the 1950s—another complication of “modern” life.
Although the actor is only 15 years old, Lucas Jade Zumann, as Jamie, holds his own in scenes with Annette Bening, anchoring the movie with his truthful and touching portrait of a smart, typical kid just trying to lay low and get through life in this unconventional household that is the only “normal” he’s ever known. We believe the intensity with which he alternately admires and is exasperated by this mother. And there are moments when Dorothea’s plan does seem to shape him into an especially fine, compassionate man. It is Jamie, for example, who takes Abbie to the clinic, and comforts Julie when she most needs that. But things go awry, as all movie plans do. A 15 year old boy can get in a lot of trouble mouthing off to the guys about what he’s learned about the clitoral orgasm, for instance. And when Jamie learns how his mother has meddled in his life, he runs away, sending his “family” up the Pacific Coast Highway in search of him.
The ending, like the rest of the film, is modest, and all the more satisfying because of it. The film’s many period touches are never self-conscious. We are instead offered a very particular, and delicious, slice of life. But the film resonates long after the final scene. Mills offers a Valentine to yesterday’s tomorrow. How fragile is our concept of what is modern. Mills peppers the film with voice-overs of each character’s fate, as the people we’ve come to love address us directly. What do we get wrong? What are the things we cannot foresee, or even imagine about the future? How is it possible that we live so intensely in a “now” which will soon disappear?
Selma Thompson: A Lifetime Member of The Writers Guild of America, East, she has written scripts for television, cable and studios. Her work has won a Cine Golden Eagle and been nominated for a Prism Award. She is also a script consultant, and teaches screenwriting and script analysis at NYU, where she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award. Educated at Princeton University and The University of London, she holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Tisch School of the Arts/NYU