Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
We look at the past with a sense of well-roundedness, which leads us to approach the future with a prideful sense of gusto and that's where we wind up making our biggest mistakes. This theme comes to life in Mike Mills' 20th Century Women as the characters, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening, in particular, speak about their ultimate fates in a manner that toys with our perception of continuity and foreshadowing. Of course, in the present, they don't know the inevitability of what will happen to them, so these moments are sort of double whammies, for lack of a better term, in the way of self-aware characters and cutesy screenwriting.
Just by that description, you should know whether or not you even want to go further with 20th Century Women and its simultaneously modest yet flagrant display of 1970s feminism and coming of age. The film is largely centered on two characters, one of whom is a fifteen-year-old boy named Jamie (Billy Jade Zumann) and the other is his single mother Dorothea, who has been taking care of him for years following the absence of his father. Jamie is fortunate, however, because despite lacking a father figure, he has the guidance of three commendable women on his side. Dorothea is a strong combination of doubt and persistence, both in regards to how she's raising Jamie with the lack of a father figure. On one hand, she believes that it shouldn't matter and believes that a female perspective is strong enough to raise a child solo, but on the other hand, Jamie is entering an age where his sexual awakening is taking place and she'd like to have some support.
That's where Jamie confides in Julie (Elle Fanning), a longtime friend whom he sleeps side-by-side with on a regular basis. He clearly has feelings for Julie in a more realistic, subdued manner, but respects Julie's desire to keep things platonic, for she too is struggling with what she wants. Jamie's other source for insight comes from Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a seventies punk-rock princess who is currently battling cervical cancer with the potential of her never being able to properly conceive being a high one. Abbie throws Jamie a couple copies of radical feminist literature, including the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, in which he becomes fascinated by clitoral stimulation in the way that most teenage boys are not fascinated. At one point, he gets beat up at the skate-park for telling a boastful boy the same age as him that the girl he recently had sex with was probably faking the alleged three orgasms she claimed to have.
20th Century Women
Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig
20 January 2017
Steve's Grade: B
This makes Dorothea fearful for what her son is learning and absorbing, but wouldn't it make it a bit better if he was having these conversations? Just yesterday, I had a conversation with three female friends about their past experiences with awkward male encounters. One pointed out how, despite it seeming maybe crass or corny, that they should be teaching the appropriate ways to approach and date in high school sexual education/health classes - maybe even throwing consent in there to balance it out. It's not an unorthodox idea, but it seems unorthodox by how frightened we are to approach even the most basic subjects of female anatomy. Consider the scene where Abbie encourages a dinner-table full of adults, including both Jamie and Julie, to say the word "menstruation" aloud upon its initial mention prompting nervous reactions, particularly from Dorothea.
20th Century Women explores our discomfort with female sexuality, despite not pressing the issue as hard as a film like The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Turn Me On, Goddammit!, but it's also far more concerned with aesthetic detail than both of those two previous films. The 1970s are to film what the massive subject of World War II is to American screenwriters. It's a safe place that inspires a lot of feelings, history, and opportunities to detail a bygone era that's never coming back, and writer/director Mills (Beginners) finds comfort and solace in making a film that's a love-letter to the era without ever getting too sappy or nostalgic.
The worst thing that happens with Mills' affection with the era is that it becomes a bit too dominant at times, sidelining the charisma of three marvelous female leads and the subjects of female sexuality and 1970s era feminism for the amalgamation of golden oldies and proto-punk. Mills seems to have a difficult time initially finding his footing in trying to portray this melting pot of empowering characters, but after the first forty-five minutes, grounds himself a bit better to let the strengths of his performers shine. As stated, Bening plays a terrific dichotomy of roles, while Fanning knocks another role out of the park and Gerwig, one of my favorite actresses, shows that she too can ground herself in a performance with more dramatic heft.
Being a largely dialog/character-driven film, 20th Century Women finds itself approaching some very good conversation topics in addition to a slew of very good moments. Consider my personal favorite scene involving Dorothea talking with Jamie about what it means to be a man. She echoes the ideas of what Abbie later states, in how that men are coming to terms with the problematic way men not only behaved decades ago, being forward, aggressive, and controlling, but portrayed in media and deemed acceptable for it. Today, men struggle with the idea of a larger identity and she expresses to Jamie her concern for the way he'll turn out, hopefully not like the men who continue to be manipulative and problematic. "Mom, I'm not all men," Jamie replies in a typical teenage tone. "Well," she responds, "yes and no."
I could go on, but I have confidence you get the drift. 20th Century Women is a tad frothy for its own good, but its heart never stops out of bounds even when its mind might. It's a lovely ensemble by three talented actresses showcasing their prowess, brimful with commentary that helps, once again, show that the past is a worthy benchmark for the future if we take the time to pay attention and read between the lines.