While it’s refreshing to hear a story of such strong, varied women living in 1979 America, it’s equally disheartening to watching them go through struggles that have lingered on nearly forty years later.
20th Century Women isn’t a particularly heavy film – more a light drama with comedic bits sprinkled throughout – but the conversations and endeavors coming from three females in this story are layered, curious, and complicated. In fact, this film written and directed by Mike Mills is less a cohesive story with a beginning and end, and more a series of such fascinating dialogues and contemplations.
Dorothea is the matriarch of the film, played beautifully and subtly by Annette Benning. She is divorced and raising a young son in Southern California, having had her child when she was 40. Dorothea is growing concerned about whether or not son Jamie has enough diverse influence in his life. She tends to push him towards Williams (Billy Crudup), a handyman renting out a room in Dorothea’s house, so as to learn masculine tendencies. Soon, however, she decides to enlist the help of two younger women to aid in Jamie’s teenage maturity and discovery.
Those would be Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something punk enthusiast who is also receiving some somber medical news as the film begins. The other is Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17-year-old girl who is seemingly more knowledgeable about sex, and who happens to be Jamie’s best friend. Though of course, as a 15-year-old, he wants that relationship to be much more.
20th Century Women never really swells, insteads it moves gently and thoughtfully, changing narrators to allow each character to offer thoughts from both the present and future. They have discussions about sex, feminism, politics, music, relationships, and sex again, in what amounts to a tender and fascinating story.
These are three very different women, but none of them are defined either by a man, or their jobs. And while Abbie and Julie come to play a part in Jamie’s growth, it’s Dorothea who in turn has to cope with the fact her son is growing up, and their bond may not stay as strong. Benning’s performance is staggering and simple; she is a single mother in a time where that wasn’t particularly embraced, and she is trying to figure out if and how her son should adopt masculine traits while also being respectful and understanding of the women in his life.
So while it’s beautiful and sweet, there is a undercurrent of sadness, of time passing by and inevitability. Dorothea and her son leave a supermarket at the start of the film and discover their car is on fire. That might be the most action the film has to offer, but there are plenty of sparks and unsettling moments that follow. Such is life.