There are three guiding voices of 20th Century Women, a film that’s itself the diary of a teenage boy being guided by three 20th-century women. One voice is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the boy, his calm, uncertain voice speaking to how unformed both his identity and his future are. Next is his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening, the reigning queen of alternative family matriarchs), subtly stunned and bewildered by the life she’s lived, living and yet to live out. The third is the aesthetic, but hardly silent, voice of director Mike Mills, but it’s the first we come to hear, or rather see. In the opening shot, the teal waves of Santa Barbara beach rush upwards towards the shore. There’s a gravity, a pull, that neither his characters, nor Mills himself, can escape, but it’s something they process as one.
Communal units can be gravitational, too, as 20th Century Women quickly proves in introducing us to the five people who inhabit Dorothea’s home during the summer of 1979. Joining hands-off mom Dorothea and confused only child Jamie are cancer-recovering punk photographer Abbie (spirited-as-ever, fuschia-haired Greta Gerwig), spiritualist handyman/potter William (Billy Crudup) and Jamie’s sexually adventurous crush Julie (a truly heart-stopping Elle Fanning). They may just be the current occupants of this household, but it feels like they’ve been together forever and will pleasingly remain that way.
It’s one thing for these naively hopeful characters to think their intense bonds will stick through the ocean of time ahead of them. It’s another thing entirely to make us genuinely believe it. 20th Century Women is a revelatory expansion for Mike Mills, the earnest existential impulses that he tested out to sweetly low-key effect in Beginners having sharpened and more acutely specified. When an archive image of the cosmos flashes onscreen, you’ll know you’re in the right place, but here Mills’ editing of existing texts and still images is nearly documentarian. What it amounts to is a sea of cultural influences, each illuminating and contradictory. “This is what life looks like in 1979”, it feels like Ewan McGregor’s Beginners character might say, but it’s no overly precious add-on here. Like in Boyhood, we end up shaped by all the details, big and small, that we’re exposed to, whether we like it or not.
Jamie lives in a household built upon inclusivity and independence, Dorothea’s most prided traits. She drops casual bits of earned wisdom and personal acceptance which her son diagnoses as deflection from her own encompassing loneliness. Jamie cannot fathom the idea that settling for the mundane beauty of the life you have is better than reaching desperately out for what you know you deserve. Time will teach him the value of both ambition and patience, but for now neither he or his mom are in a place to build up each other. Cue Dorothea’s proposition for Julie and Abbie, both close enough to Jamie’s age to empathize with his longing, to essentially raise him to be the right man for this particular generation of women.
Mills deploys no cloying contrivances or easy arrivals in Jamie’s emotionally stagnated journey of modern masculinity, nor does he indulge the young boy’s ego at all. To the contrary, having such a rich base of female influences grants him a freshly feminist outlook on his own desires. And while Jamie may be the dramatic focal point, Mills has an invested interest in the journeys of discovery that all members of this makeshift family undertake. Julie’s refusal of Jamie’s advances is quickly validated by her conviction to maintain that special, beautifully honest platonic bond; the kind of no stakes attachment where she can reflect upon her sexual adventures without invoking jealousy or judgment. Elle Fanning may give the film’s most fiercely internalized performance, her every fascination and fear lurking perceptively beneath the surface. “I’m not something that happened to you,” Julie says, indignantly refusing to believe that her experiences are merely window-dressings on others’ lives.
Greta Gerwig’s Abbie, meanwhile, is such a bright-burning collection of neuroses and restrained sadness that she doesn’t mind fleetingly decorating others’ lives. Gerwig’s work is one of vibrant emotion, Abbie’s frustrations with the hand life has dealt with her vigorously externalized by the assumption that her own counter-cultural convictions must yield to it. With such dense, thoughtful work from the women, you’d expect the men to inevitably disappoint, but while Billy Crudup may not be at the heightened level of his female counterparts, he’s just as introspective in his study of Williams’ aimless, uncertain masculinity. If Jamie’s development remained arrested for forty years, he may end up a lot like William, making Dorothea’s attraction to him perhaps slightly inappropriate.
Annette Bening’s work, though, is 20th Century Women‘s inevitable centerpiece – shame to the awards campaign that tries pushing her as supporting – a mix of pronounced, reserved, external and internalized disciplines adding up to the fascinating complexity of Dorothea. She’s at once deeply empathetic and necessarily unknowable, thriving on honest communication, yet incapable of confronting certain hard truths about her life. Even at age 55, Dorothea’s in as much a state of becoming as Jamie, Julie, Abbie and William, stubbornly unable to extricate certain learned traits, like her smoking habits, but curious about the changing culture around her, like the combative punk community. Bening walks a fascinating tightrope, Dorothea’s joys and fears inextricably entangled upon her face.
Not simply coasting on the cast’s vivacious communal work as an excuse for laziness, 20th Century Women‘s below-the-line team works just as harmonically in sync with one another. Roger Neill’s beautifully ethereal score – such a far cry from the irritating peppiness of Don’t Think Twice you hardly believe they’re by the same person – lends a perfect aural atmosphere for Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter cinematographer Sean Porter’s starry-eyed, entrancing undulating camerawork. Characters whiz by, restless even in this exciting moment, and the image splits into a dreamy technicolor haze, but these tendencies never feel stale or one-dimensional.
That’s owing much to The Master co-editor Leslie Jones’ own inter-dimensional work, managing dream-space and time-space with such intoxicating skill as to validate the film’s bittersweet existential core. 20th Century Women juggles multiple voices and perspectives, each tied so intensely to one another that it’s hard to fathom a life for these character’s beyond this particular time and place. They cannot fathom the blindsiding struggles to come in the 80s and beyond any more than Jack Horner’s crew could until William H. Macy shot them off into the violent new decade in Boogie Nights. They cannot believe that they’d find happiness and validation anywhere but here and now. It’s a naive hope, but a truly precious one.
Bottom Line: A heart-stopping group portrait, 20th Century Women is a bittersweet existential triumph, expanding coming-of-age for every generation.