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20th Century Women

Back in 2010, there was a movie called Beginners. It’s still one of my favorite films from that year. It’s a movie overflowing with humor and heart, such a deeply moving portrait of compelling and three-dimensional characters. Little wonder, considering that the film was a semi-biographical depiction of writer/director Mike Mills and his late father (immortalized in an Oscar-winning turn by the great Christopher Plummer).

So what does Mills do for a follow-up? What else but extend the same treatment to his mother? Incidentally, that would be the character briefly yet memorably played in a dry and sardonic turn from Mary Page Keller in Beginners. So if you saw Beginners (and if you haven’t, I really want to stress how much I recommend it) and you’re expecting another two hours with that character, you’re going to get that and a whole lot more. And I love the film for it.

 20th Century Women is a slice-of-life movie about a handful of different characters all living together in an old house undergoing renovation. Long story short, the house was built in 1908 and fell into disrepair as it passed through various hands, eventually coming into the possession of Dorothea (the stand-in for Mills’ mother, this time played by Annette Bening). The year of the house’s construction is important — we’ll get back to that later.

Dorothea is a 55-year-old woman raising a 15-year-old boy (Jamie, played by Lucas Jade Zumann), and she’s also been single ever since divorcing her husband. Dorothea chain-smokes, she’s got a withering sense of humor, and she simply can’t wrap her head around this modern era in which passion and energy are apparently prized more than common sense.

See, Dorothea came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. This film takes place in 1979, after the massive cultural shifts that happened in the ’60s and ’70s. So of course she feels adrift, listening to the punk rock scene and asking how anyone could prefer this over actual music. Yet Dorothea is appealing in that she never dismisses out of hand the music or cultural trends of the time. Quite the contrary, she puts a genuine effort into trying to understand it, often through embarrassing attempts at dancing and all manner of passive-aggressive snark mixed in with the sincere questions.

She knows that times are changing, and she respects that. But at the same time, she’s afraid for her teenaged son. He’s growing up in this strange and turbulent time she barely understands, and he seems to be growing further and further away as a direct result. It’s a timeless and universal scenario for any parent.

(Side note: Bringing it back to Beginners, that film was about caring for an old man at the end of his life while this one is about raising a boy who’s just now coming into his own. It’s a neat kind of symmetry there.)

Dorothea feels like she needs help getting through to her son, recognizing his need for trusted friends who can speak with him on his terms and go with him to the trendy new places she can’t. That’s where our other characters come in.

Abby (an unrecognizable Greta Gerwig) is a photographer who came back to California and rented a room in Dorothea’s house after getting diagnosed with cervical cancer. Now in recovery, she has a fondness for the punk rock scene and she’s got a hell of a feminist streak. The third main female character is Julie (Elle Fanning), a teenager coming to grips with her own blooming sexuality. Julie is one of Jamie’s oldest friends, having snuck over to sleep at his place on a constant basis to get away from her own family, but they’ve never done anything more than sleep in the same bed. Because friends can’t have sex and stay friends, you see.

Rounding out the main cast is William (Billy Crudup), the handyman who’s helping to renovate the house. He’s also a failed attempt at giving Jamie a father figure, and another potential love interest for Dorothea that goes nowhere. Though to be fair, it’s well established that none of Dorothea’s potential boyfriends last very long. He also gets into something with Abby, but I’d rather not get into any more detail about that than I have to.

It goes without saying that themes regarding women are central to the film. Not only is it right there in the title, but we’ve got three female characters: One in her fifties, one in her late twenties, and one in her late teens. Thus we have all sorts of conflicting and contrasting perspectives on matters of birth control, feminism, motherhood, marriage, menstruation (seriously, there’s a scene about ninety minutes in and it’s a showstopper), and other such issues, all at a time when the women’s liberation movement pushed these matters to the forefront of the national consciousness. There are even a few times in which one generation is clearly and explicitly shown to suffer through the mistakes of another generation. (DES, anyone?)

Yet the film also looks at the other side of the equation. With all these shifting social norms, it’s hard to define what it means to be a good man. For that matter, what does it take for a mother to raise a son and make sure he grows into a good man? Nobody seems to have any answers, so Dorothea can only fall back on what she knew from the Great Depression: It takes a village to raise a child.

Obviously, none of these issues or questions have grown any less relevant with time. In point of fact, the passage of time is another crucial part of the movie. Remember, the house was built in 1908, and we learn through voice-over narration that Dorothea died in 1999. In fact, there’s a brief moment in which the characters (again, through voice-over) talk about how all of this took place before anyone had any idea that President Reagan was coming, that we’d eventually be more worried of rising sea levels than nukes, and so on. In some way, through various aspects, everything in this movie covers the entire span of the 20th century.

It’s really very difficult to overstate just how huge a role time plays in this film. It’s absolutely brilliant how the filmmakers used 1979 as a turning point for these characters and for the nation at large, such that they’re worried about both and the film can explore both at same time. As the characters try to find their place in a changing world, and try to help each other with the same, they also come to realize who they are as people, and as people of their respective sexual identities. It’s remarkable how all of that stuff dovetails together in a way that’s honest and thought-provoking without ever coming off as tired or cliched.

It also helps, of course, that all of these characters are beautifully realized, with sterling dialogue and wonderful performances. Annette Bening is of course the highlight, perfectly in her element as an older woman with a razor wit and a deadpan sense of humor. A ton of credit is also due to young Lucas Jade Zumann, who shoulders the difficult task of playing a moody teenager without losing all sympathy for the character. So much of the film rests on his shoulders and he carries all of it very well.

William is definitely one of the weaker characters, but he still has some wonderful moments and Billy Crudup is more than talented enough to elevate what he’s given. Elle Fanning isn’t quite as strong as I’ve seen her in some other films, but for someone who’s always been typecast as the virginal beauty, it was very refreshing to see her play someone who smokes and has sex and doesn’t apologize for it. Kudos for trying something new and pulling it off quite well. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Alia Shawkat, who’s here and gone too soon with a brief cameo role.

But for me, the MVP is Abby. Through her weird little quirks, her deep-seated emotional and physical problems, her outlandish feminist diatribes, and her “big sister” relationship with Jamie, I was endlessly fascinated by this character. Of course, it certainly helps that Greta Gerwig went all out throwing herself into this role. Seriously, I don’t know what she’s doing with this and Jackie, but I dearly hope she keeps doing it.

(Side note: Regarding the “big sister” angle, the character was loosely based on Mills’ real sister.)

As for the miscellaneous notes, the filmmakers use a lot of devices held over from Beginners. We’ve got flashbacks, voice-overs, title cards, sequences of still photographs, and so on. They were effective then and they still do the job now — especially since we’ve got a character who’s an actual still photographer. The big difference is that this time, it’s all of the main characters who get moments of voice-over instead of just one, so all of their perspectives are represented. I’m not typically a fan of something so emotionally distancing, yet the devices work here because they feel like we’re getting a window into the characters’ heads, thus creating the opposite effect.

20th Century Women is a lovely film. It’s a funny and heartfelt piece with a lot of great things to say about growing up and raising a kid in time of constant social upheaval, with massive changes in culture and gender politics. Perhaps more importantly, I loved getting the chance to meet these characters, and I’d gladly recommend the experience to anyone else.

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