'20th Century Women' Tries to Capture a Cultural Moment

'20th Century Women' is a frustrating but valid picture.

Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning and Annette Bening in '20th Century Women.'
Gunther Gampine, A24 via AP

Mike Mills’ new film “20th Century Women” arouses a mix of admiration, interest, puzzlement and frustration, and so do its heroine and the actress playing her, Annette Bening, whom I generally like. The movie’s name already reveals how much it presumes to do; it does not quite succeed.

Mills’ previous movie, the 2010 “Beginners,” was based on the story of his own father, who, widowed at age 75, came out as gay, and despite being diagnosed with cancer, enjoyed the freedom that being open about his sexuality finally gave him. That film succeeded in large part thanks to the precise depiction of the father’s relationship with his son, and even more so due to Christopher Plummer’s performance as the father, which won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

“20th Century Women” also has an autobiographical dimension. Mills (who also wrote the screenplay, with many fine scenes that unfortunately do not add up to a fine enough whole) turns this time to his mother. The movie’s episodic plot centers on his memories of their complicated relationship when he was 15, a boy trying to figure out his male identity at a time of great upheaval in gender relations. When I say the film is presumptuous, I mean its attempt to use a private story as a representation and exploration of that upheaval. It aims to tell not just what happens to the young hero, but more broadly, what is going on at that cultural moment, 1979. The three women closest to the boy are meant to represent not only themselves, but stages in the development of feminist consciousness. It is this dimension of “20th Century Women” that creates the mixed reaction I described. Sometimes the connection between the personal story and the larger, social one seems natural, but more often it feels like an agenda forced onto the picture from the outside.

At its best, “20th Century Women” follows the struggles of a mother to relate to her son and guide him toward adulthood. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a 55-year-old divorcee who grew up during the Great Depression, a fact that is supposed to explain why she is so preoccupied with her stock-market investments. She lives in an old Santa Barbara house that she is constantly renovating, without ever seeming to finish, renting out rooms to boost her income as a draughtswoman. One of the tenants is William, an ex-hippie turned handyman, who helps her in the renovation efforts. (William is performed by Billy Crudup, currently also appearing in “Jackie” as the journalist sent to interview the murdered president’s widow.) Another tenant is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young photographer whose short, purple hairdo was inspired by David Bowie’s in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and who is recovering from cervical cancer.

This is the world in which Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) grows up. Being a single mother (Jamie’s father is absent from his life, which does not seem to have much importance in the movie), Dorothea feels incapable of providing the necessary guidance for a pubescent boy. She therefore turns for help to Abbie and to Jamie’s best friend, 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who is sexually active herself but sneaks into Jamie’s room at night just to sleep by his side. Dorothea also approaches William, but despite his kindness, he does not strike her as the kind of person who can help her son become a good man. She and Abbie give Jamie books on feminism and female sexuality, which Mills quotes from in voice-over narration and captions. Jamie is engrossed in this reading material, but what he learns from it makes things complicated with his friends, who find his interest in the topic alien and disconcerting. It also makes life difficult with Dorothea and Abbie; what he learns about relations between men and women comes mainly from his relationship with Julie, whose own active sex life, in which he does not share, is rooted in a distressing family situation.

Unnecessary burden

Although Jamie is supposedly the focus of the movie, “20th Century Women” belongs to Dorothea, with her unkempt hair, unfashionable clothes and Birkenstock sandals. The episodic structure of the plot reveals the contradictory sides of her personality, with which Mills aims to make his portrait of motherhood complex and believable. Dorothea could have been controlling and overbearing, but the movie refuses to portray her that way; she is a good, anxious mother, who copes in her eccentric way with the difficulties of raising a son during social and cultural turmoil that she finds perplexing, but nonetheless tries to accept and even adapt to.

Still, the components of Dorothea’s character do not all blend in a satisfying way. Her portrayal involves some fine, very precise scenes, but also others that try too hard to make the portrait richer. As a result, and despite Bening’s considerable talents, her performance is effortful and at times too mannered, like the movie as a whole.

The main problem with the movie is that it lacks the simplicity and directness of “Beginners,” opting instead for screenwriting and visual ploys that tie the private story to the historical moment: voice-over narration, captions announcing important biographical details about the main characters, brief flashbacks, photos and archive footage of events from the historical period in question, when Jimmy Carter was still president but Ronald Reagan was already on the horizon. These ploys, however, seem at times an unnecessary burden. Oddest and least necessary of all is Mills’ use of speeded-up cinematography and psychedelic colors for some of the road scenes. If these devices are all intended to highlight the complexity of Jamie’s coming-of-age and of human relationships more generally, especially that of Dorothea and her son, they fail to do so.

What makes “20th Century Women” frustrating is that it is a valid picture that keeps looking for itself, but goes off in too many directions to find itself. Mills’ comic ambitions also worked better in “Beginners,” often falling flat in this case. As a result, the movie seems peculiar at times, even bland, though it offers the constant pleasure of watching the actors – young Zumann, Gerwig, Fanning, Crudup, and finally Bening, whose delivery of Mills’ lines once again shows her ability to strike just the right tone.