Mark Reviews Movies

20th Century Women


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mike Mills

Cast: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 12/28/16 (limited); 1/20/17 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 19, 2017

The title is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, 20th Century Women does indeed feature women of various generations of the previous century. There are three of them, specifically: a woman of the Great Depression and World War II, one of the Baby Boom, and one who is on the verge of legal-age womanhood in 1979. Despite their age differences, they all share similar political and cultural values, and that, to an extent, is about all that we learn about them.

This isn't really the story of these women, because there's a teenage boy, trying to figure out how to become a man, involved. That's the central point of writer/director Mike Mills' movie—what these women will say about the boy, how they will shape his life, the kind of man the boy will become. In a way, that means the story is about the women, but it is only about them indirectly, framed by the important lessons that they will teach the kid. It is only about them, then, "in a way."

Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), that boy, is 15 years old. He has been raised by his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) after his father left when he was younger. They still drive around in Jamie's father's car, until it suddenly bursts into flames while mother and son are at the grocery store at the start of the story. In terms of signs of the old ways ending, that's pretty on-the-nose.

The place is Santa Barbara, California. Dorothea's life flashes quickly in a montage, as we learn of her dreams to be a pilot being dashed and how life as a single mother was made, perhaps, a little easier because of the time of her own upbringing. Her lifestyle and outward appearance suggest an aging hippie, before the notion of an aging hippie was even a thing. She bought a somewhat dilapidated house in the area but rents out rooms to keep costs down. It's a sort of communal-living environment.

Her routines and attitude, though, point to a more conservative outlook. Dorothea checks her stocks every morning with Jamie's help. She worries about bad influences on Jamie, and she especially worries that the absence of a man in her son's life is going to cause problems for him later on in his life. She's convinced that he won't learn what it means to be a man. William (Billy Cudrup), the house's resident handyman who does renovation work on the place in lieu of rent, isn't going to cut it, either. Jamie finds William's talk about tools and wood to be quite boring.

That's where Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a Baby Boomer artist and cancer survivor who rents one of the rooms, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17-year-old who lives in the neighborhood and has been one of Jamie's closest friends for years, come into play. Surely, these two can teach Jamie about being a man.

The premise is something of an eye-roller in the context of a movie with this particular title and containing a trio of female characters of such diverse, generational experiences. Essentially, Mills has set himself up with a strange challenge: how to tell Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie's stories while still communicating the boy's experience. At a certain point, it becomes clear that the writer/director has those priorities reversed: Instead, the challenge is how to tell Jamie's story while still communicating the women's experiences.

The distinction is one of the movie's central focus. As much as Mills attempts to balance the boy's story with the women's stories, the weight of Jamie's tale always seems to be tipping the scales in its favor.

The movie's more intriguing passages, though, are about the women. There's a particularly effective moment when the movie escapes the bonds of time, as Dorothea's narration breaks into the future tense. She lies in bed smoking a cigarette, but her voice explains how, 20 years later in the fervor of fear about Y2K, she will be dead from cancer.

The moment comes almost out of left field (Mills has already incorporated a few stylistic breaks in the narrative, in the form of archival footage and still shots of various items that help to define certain characters—even still shots of photographs of items that help to define Abbie). It's striking for a couple of reasons. In a single juxtaposition of image and sound, the scene communicates a slew of ideas—about consequences, about the fleetingness of life, about how apparently significant things are really trivial within the scope of life and death. It also, unintentionally, reminds us that there are huge chasms between what we learn about these characters and their potential.

This is the case with Jamie, too, despite the movie's focus on his development. We lose a lot about these characters in Mill's attempt to balance them all, and the ones whose lives come across as the most fascinating in 20th Century Women end up in service of a story that isn't their own.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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