Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker) and starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Brian Cruddup and Lucas Jade Zumann, 20th Century Women tells of the birth of a new world. This new beginning is seen through the eyes of Jamie, Dorothea’s 15 year old son.
The year is 1979 and the place is Santa Barbara, California. Feminism is on the rise and single mother Dorothea (Bening) raises her son and harbors a house full of free spirits.
Punk is on its way out but Abbie (Gerwig) introduces Jamie (Zumann) to the music scene while giving her landlady a hand raising her only son. Dorothea also asks Julie (Fanning) and William (Cruddup) to help round out Jamie’s development as a young man.
Culturally, 20th Century Women is a wonderful trip down memory lane as we follow Jamie’s journey. Whether it is bashing one another in the mosh pit to the latest punk sensation or reading all about how a real man can pleasure a woman, the only thing really missing is a tattered volume of “The Joys of Sex” circa 1972.
Mills gives us a snapshot of the dying ‘70’s. In this semi-autobiographical (which is the bookend, of sorts, to his other biopic Beginners) we are given a brief glimpse into a woman who was not a cookie cutter version of her peers. Dorothea, the woman in question, waltzes to the beat of her own personal rhythm.
We have a slice of ‘70’s Americana that includes commune living, something that William relates to Dorothea one night, and in many ways Jamie’s mother has created a type of commune of her own. The huge house that is being renovated throughout most of the film has that same sort of feeling.
Mill’s takes his time with this labor of love. 20th Century Women may be a celebration of the director’s mother but in many ways, especially at the beginning, the film tries too hard and comes across as a Wes Anderson wannabe.
This annoyance does not last long but it does take up the first third of the film. Once past that point, there is more focus on the times. The film, through its story, introduces works of literature and even includes President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979.
20th Century Women recalls a time when the family, even an extended one like Dorothea’s, would sit down and watch a presidential speech together. The film is over an interesting time of change for America.
The Vietnam War was over by 1979 and the United States was going through some massive changes. The film hints at this through the auspices of the feminist books that Jamie is given to read by Abbie.
15 year old Jamie is given an education by the young women in his life with wide ranging results. In one instance he gets beaten up after suggesting that a skateboarding chum’s girlfriend faked her orgasms.
The film is a dramedy, it has a fair amount of serious events combined with some amusing moments and a few laugh out loud moments. One problem is the film’s overall length. At just under two hours it drags somewhat in the middle and could have lost at least 15 to 20 minutes easily.
Bening is brilliant as the mid-50’s single mother who is a free spirit. She struggles to understand her 15 year old son and gets bogged down when Abbie gives Jamie too much too soon. Zumann as Jamie is just spot on.
Cruddup, as usual, gives an honest performance and Elle Fanning captivates whenever she is on the screen. (Keep an eye out for the “therapist” scene between Fanning and Bening.)
20th Century Women is a solid 4 star film. It loses a full star for being that bit too low key and too long. It is still worth a look but may entertain those over 50 that bit more than those who did not live through 1979.