I didn’t go into 20th Century Women expecting much. The trailer makes it look like the quirky indie comedies that show up every December with their palms out for Oscar nominations. Why are so many movie posters these days just rectangular stills on a white background? That trend needs to stop.
If I’d been familiar with Mike Mills’ work, maybe I would have gone in with less of an attitude. Tonally, 20th Century Women is mostly what you’d expect: charming, approachable, a little risqué. There are lots of jokes about adults trying to figure out how to manage horny teenagers. But if I walked in thinking I had it figured out, five minutes proved me wrong. It’s the best kind of comedy: it makes complicated relationships fun to watch without taking shortcuts.
Mills knows that his least interesting character is Jamie, the 15-year-old whom the film’s coming-of-age premise seemingly revolves around. He’s your teenage everyboy, overwhelmed by problems everyone else in the movie knows to be typical. How to fit in with guys and impress girls, what music to like, how to define yourself in relation to your parents. Lucas Jade Zumann is great as Jamie, but his role in the story is wet clay, a vector for the more interesting characters who surround him.
The movie’s meat and potatoes are the titular women. Dorothea (Annette Bening), Jamie’s mother, is a member of the Greatest Generation confounded by the counterculture’s overhaul of American customs. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an artist with a rough personal history, rents a room on Dorothea’s second floor. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s friend who sometimes sleeps with him—as in, comes into his bed late at night and sleeps next to him. Dorothea is a single mother with no clue how to manage Jamie in his adolescence, and handyman William (Billy Crudup) doesn’t click as a father figure, so Dorothea enlists Abbie and Julie to help raise her kid.
The movie’s marketing has made a lot of noise about the Historical Moment the movie takes place in: 1979, Jimmy Carter, post-hippy, punk-rock, pre-Reagan. But 20th Century Women isn’t trying too hard to make a statement about that moment. For me, the movie’s real success is its universal portrayal of pop culture and how people interact with it. No characters are stereotypes of the era; rather, fashion, music, and feminist literature are cultural nodes that all the characters use to find direction. The movie is unafraid of dialogue like “What does it mean to be a man?” because it knows that’s a question actual people ask, not just authorial surrogates and essay anthologies.
The generational divide that forms the movie’s drama isn’t about manifestations of the eras butting heads, it’s real people having real arguments about the usefulness of image and theory in shaping identity. If you’ve ever had an argument with your parents about your music and fashion choices or the merits of current political rhetoric, you will see yourself in this movie.
My only gripe is that even though it breaks ground in a lot of ways, race isn’t one of them. There’s one black character who gets about three lines, that’s it. Nothing wrong with that in an autobiographical film set in Santa Barbara, but the movie is called 20th Century Women, not 20th Century White Suburban Women.
For a movie so embedded in a specific slice of history, 20th Century Women knows exactly what to do with a modern audience. From the first cut between lumbering SoCal waves to a burning car, it’s compulsively watchable. Mills uses all sorts of tricks—fast-motion, montages of still photographs, weird color effects—without looking like a show-off, and he knows when to get out of his actors’ way. The production design, camerawork, editing, and performance choices all put a vise grip on your attention while serving the larger story. Ten years from now, this’ll be one of those movies it’s hard to turn off when you’re channel surfing.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. Twitter