20th Century Women takes place at the end of the 70s in Santa Barbara, California. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a bohemian, mid-50ish, single mom trying to raise her son, adolescent Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). They live in a big old house in the middle of renovations and have two boarders – budding photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Zen mechanic William (Billy Crudup). And there is a teenage neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) who frequently climbs in the window to lie chastely in bed with young Jamie, her BFF, to his growing dismay. Dorothea feels that she needs help with Jamie, and thinking they’re closer in age, she asks the girls to help her with his transition to manhood. What follows is both funny and touching.
This film is semi-autobiographical for writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners), so he totally gets the dialogue and vibe of the time. Carter was President. Skateboarding was the teen rage. The Talking Heads were on the radio. Hostages were taken in Iran. And to help Jamie, Abbie loads him up with feminist reading like “Our Bodies, Ourselves”, which he takes to heart and calls out a bully on not understanding the female orgasm. In fact feminism is an issue that comes up quite a bit in the film. It’s the trio of women in Jamie’s orbit that move the film. Each of them is dealing with something that men never will- motherhood, being a teenage girl, childbearing. And while the male characters are good, it’s the females who shine.
Annette Bening is at her best – anxious in a casual way and very funny. I’ve been a fan of Greta Gerwig (Mistress America, Frances Ha) for a while and I love her in 20th Century Women because it’s not her usual lovable but goofy loser, and she rocks it! And Elle Fanning (American Pastoral, Ginger & Rosa) is perfect as the daughter of a psychiatrist with boy issues. It is a great ensemble piece, ultimately a series of scenes with flash forwards and narration that paints a picture of a place and time and the people who were there. I found it delightful.