It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara and Dorothea is with her son Jamie watching their car burn down. After the fire department takes control of the situation, Dorothea reminisces on how beautiful the car was. Jamie just can’t grasp it. To him it was just a gross old car that smelled of gasoline. This type of disconnect is the foundation of Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. We collect totems, books, or pictures and bestow them with magical powers. When we try to share them, the spell breaks. Is it even possible to explain to our children who their ancestors really were as people? Do we really know?
Mike Mills’ last film Beginners (2011) took an autobiographical approach to create a portrait of his father. He takes a similar approach with 20th Century Women with his mother in the spotlight. Using montages of historical moments and overlays of milestone influences, he sets the stage and places meticulously fleshed out characters in an old house that is in constant renovations.
Dorothea, played by Annette Bening, is the heart of the movie. She embodies the part so fully, when her influences are laid out, they are only a formality as this is the modus operandi of the film. They aren’t all that necessary. We understand her journey and wisdom with every snarky remark and with every drag of her cigarette. Watching her is electric, the movie simply would not work without her.
Lucas Jade Zumann plays Jamie, her son and the love of her life. She appears to be raising him in a constant state of awe. Instead of getting in trouble for forging his mother’s signature, Jamie impresses her with how he manages to do it so well. Jamie can pretty much do as he pleases and Dorothea has faith that her spirit and wisdom, acquired through her counter culture background, will guide him into being a good person. This faith however is rocked when Jamie is seriously injured playing a meaningless kid’s game where they force each other to pass out. Dorothea is truly disturbed and concerned about this. She deputizes Julie and Abbie, the two other women in Jamie’s life, to watch out for Jamie without fully taking into account the roles they are currently playing for him.
Elle Fanning is Julie, a neighbor and best friend to Jamie. She is endlessly reflective about herself and sex. This is partially due to her therapist mother making her sit through sessions. Julie’s beauty and introspection make her very easy to fall in love with and in Jamie’s case, very easy to be friendzoned by. To a pretty extreme degree even. She secretly sneaks into his room every night to sleep next to him.
Abbie becomes a type of older sister to Jamie. She is a tenant in the house but Dorothea is kind enough to let her live there with a flexible rent schedule. This is partially due to how emotionally fragile she is because she is still learning to live with her cervical cancer. There is always a camera around her as she is rebuilding herself with her craft. Like all good older siblings, Abbie becomes Jamie’s ambassador for all things cool. This is what Greta Gerwig does best. Her collaborations with Noah Baumbach have her expertly tuned to do it with so much charm and empathy. Like Gerwig’s past roles, Abbie’s finger is on the pulse of the revolution.
The man in the house is William as played by Billy Crudup. William has a pretty good deal going as a handyman. He repairs the house and cars in exchange for the rent. It was Dorothea’s hope that he could really connect with Jamie but they share very little in common. Jamie finds him very boring. This is due to how zen and non-threatening he is. Dorothea and William are the oldest people in the house and both share in being mystified by the youth of the day. Watching them try to understand the music is very funny.
In fact, like the best comedies, the biggest laughs come from moments of vulnerability. William describing the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had my audience rolling, but it only works because of Julie’s confession. Jamie explaining to Dorothea how he got in a fight because he was discussing a certain sort of stimulation is illustrative of how far apart they are emotionally. To describe the funniest moments, much like a photograph, does not do them justice. You really have to be there living in the emotional landscape that Mills builds in every scene.
At about two hours, 20th Century Women tends to feel aimless at times but it is forgivable because the performances are just so good. Mills’ direction is precise, he knows all these characters with microscopic intimacy, which he sprinkles throughout the whole movie. He genuinely loves these people and much like how Dorothea invites everyone she runs into to stop by for dinner, he invites the audience to stay a while.
20th Century Women is in theaters now.