‘20th Century Women’ Review: A Tender Celebration of the Feminine Spirit
Early in 20th Century Women, Elle Fanning’s rebellious teenager Julie asks, “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” With little pause, Annette Bening’s single mother Dorothea assuredly responds, “No, I don’t think so.”
The latest film from Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners) finds three women helping raise a teenage boy. It’s a premise that could easily crash and burn in the wrong hands. 20th Century Women never does. Instead, Mills has made not only one of the best films of the year, but one that unabashedly celebrates the feminine spirit.
As Dorothea’s son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zunman) enters his teenage years, she worries she won’t do a good job raising him. During the summer of 1979, Dorothea assembles the main women in Jamie’s life, including Fanning’s Julie and Greta Gerwig’s Abbie, a housemate living with the family, to help teach him how to grow into a respectful man. With a key assist from Billy Crudup’s William, a sweet, meditative mechanic, Dorothea, Julie, and Abbie essentially teach Jamie Feminism 101. They lend him classic books like Our Bodies, Our Selves. They teach him about music, culture, and identity. But the lessons that make the biggest impressions on Jamie are the unplanned ones, like a spontaneous trip to L.A., or getting drunk for the first time, or when Julie shows him how to smoke a cigarette and look cool.
20th Century Women appears to tell a traditional coming-of-age tale about a boy, but the film brilliantly uses that cliché as an entry point to explore the cross-generational relationships of its three lead women. Bening’s Dorothea, based on Mills’ real-life mother, is a woman “from the Depression,” as her son describes repeatedly. She smokes, but only because “it wasn’t bad for you” when she started, and casually drops aphorisms like “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.” Julie, the daughter of a psychologist, sleeps with popular boys while friend-zoning Jamie, sneaking into his room at night for platonic cuddles. Abbie, inspired by Mills’ sister, is a photographer with Bowie-esque hair who’s recovering from cervical cancer. She first seems like another variation of a typical Gerwig character, a ’70s Frances Halladay. But Gerwig lends a depth to Abbie that makes her much more vulnerable and sympathetic than the actress’ previous characters.
Each of these women seem to embody female stereotypes – the sexualized teenager, the manic pixie dream girl, the hippie mother – but Mills writes them with such rich layers of personality that they defy easy categorization. Bening, Fanning, and Gerwig all have multiple scene-stealing moments, and Mills fills the film around them with little vignettes of daily life, like when Gerwig’s Abbie tries to demystify the taboo of menstruation in one of the funniest scenes in film this year. But where Beginners was about getting to know someone near the end of their life, 20th Century Women explores the notion that there’s no fixed age when we truly come into ourselves, and how a “coming-of-age” can happen at any time.
Mills style, which mixes still photography and archival footage to capture the cultural atmosphere around his characters, and makes 20th Century Women feel more like a lived-in snapshot of intersecting lives than a narrative with a traditional beginning, middle, and end. And once it’s over, you know each of these characters intimately.
With Beginners, Mills turned his father’s coming-out story into sentimental reflection on grief and starting over. In 20th Century Women Mills opens up his perspective to listen to the women around his male characters, questioning gender roles and traditional ideas about parenting without forcing clear-cut answers or expected endings on the audience. It’s a tender, introspective film you’ll want to pull in close, hold tight, and keep with you.