STARRING: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann and Billy Crudup
DIRECTED BY: Mike Mills
WRITTEN BY: Mike Mills
Timing is everything. And this is the perfect moment for 20th Century Women to get some screen time with the shadow of the election. The world feels a restlessness when it comes to the future of women’s rights. Writer/director Mike Mills got it right with this story of a women who struggles with her identity in an emerging feminist era.
Dorthea (Annette Bening) is a single mom in the late 70s raising a teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a house full of eccentric dwellers. Jamie is in love with with his childhood friend Julie (Elle Fanning) but she prefers his emotional company. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a photographer and artist who is coming to terms with an illness that forces her to live the moment. Both Dorthea and Jamie have an emotional crisis that they are not equip to handle. In an act of desperation, Dorthea asks Julie and Abbie to serve as surrogate male role models to Jamie. They reluctantly agree to take Jamie under their care.
20th Century Women is a character-driven film. Mills does an elegant job of focusing on the deep emotional ebbs and flows of each character. Most of the interactions between each character are subdued. For instance, there are striking scenes where Abbie takes photos of objects and moments that are hers. There is also the scenes between Dorthea and Jamie that hold so much truth. The audience expects a blowup whenever Jamie rebels and gets into a bit of trouble; I was surprised with the way the Dorthea handled each situation. But as a mother myself, I can understand the fear of breaking the fragile bond between mother and child, especially at those crucial teenage years.
There is also a strong feminist theme in each scene as well as the overall film. This is especially Abbie’s influence as she provides Jamie some strong feminist literature as well as advice on the women’s liberation movement. This is in juxtaposition with Dorthea’s more guarded views. It’s also understood that most of these difference are due to age (Dorthea is, after all, a woman in her 50s raising a 15-year-old kid who loves punk music). In her attempt to be an understanding mother, Dorthea pushes her son further away.
There is a male influence provided by William (Billie Crudup) who, like Abbie, rents a room in Dorthea’s house. He’s kind of also the handy man but has the soul of a poet. But Jamie learns more about what being a man is by the interactions with the strong women in his life.
It is refreshing to watch a film that really addresses the wants, needs and complexity of women without making it artificial. The script is so well-written and there are lines that made my eyes moist as well as laugh at the cleverness. But Mills is authentic because it is a semi-biographical piece. And when a writer pays attention, it makes for a good film.