Movie Review: 20th Century Women (2016)
“20th Century Women” is a coming-of-age movie set in 1979—the year before we elected Reagan and everything began to go to hell.
It’s bittersweet, as all true coming-of-age movies are. The sweet is youth and discovery; the bitter is all that’s left unsaid and undone. It’s about the moment that’s gone forever and can never be reclaimed except through art.
I’d call the movie a character study but it’s really a characters study. The 15-year-old protagonist, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), lives with his iconoclastic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), in a big, drafty, fixer-upper in Santa Barbara populated by two renters: the mellow, ex-hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup), and the 25-year-old cancer survivor/photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who teaches Jamie about punk rock and encourages him to get out. Meanwhile, his best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), two years older, is half an adolescent boy’s wet dream. She’s the pretty girl who climbs through his bedroom window to sleep with him. Except it’s just that: sleep. No fooling around. She fools around with other guys, but with him it’s “just friends.” He handles this with more equanimity than I would have.
Still, his mother is worried. She was born in 1924 (I love that the movie tells us when every character was born), came of age during the Depression and World War II, and, while generally liberal in outlook, doesn’t get what the world is coming to. She doesn’t get punk music and its fashions, and can’t understand why teenage boys would engage in something as stupid as “the fainting game,” in which another kid pushes on your diaphragm and you keep breathing out until you faint. Jamie’s faint lasts a half hour and includes a trip to the hospital. After that, Dorothea decides she needs help raising him. She turns to Abbie and Julie, who question her choice. “What about William?” they ask. But Jamie doesn’t connect to men, says the mother; he connects with women.
It takes a village
Let me add: I love this movie. It’s almost tailor-made for me.
In 1979, I was about Jamie’s age, 16, and the product of divorce, as he was. Except my family split up along gender lines. I stayed with my father and older brother in south Minneapolis, while my mother and younger sister moved to Timonium, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. We saw each other twice a year. Our side was all testosterone: the liberal, bookish, short-tempered version.
You know what I needed back then? This movie. Its matter-of-fact sexual lessons. Mine came from the usual wrong sources—Hugh Hefner, Hollywood, the shadowy intel of peers—while Jamie is helped out by a houseful of women. Abbie gives him two books, “Our Bodies, Our Selves” and “Sisterhood is Powerful,” a 1970 collection of feminist essays. There’s a great scene at the skate park when another kid brags about his sexual prowess and Jamie attempts to educate him about how women have orgasms. That, and the Talking Heads shirt Jamie is wearing (instead of true punk like Black Flag), leads to a fight, and a great moment when Dorothea is doctoring Jamie’s wounds back home:
Dorothea: What was the fight about?
Jamie [after a pause]: Clitoral stimulation.
It’s a crime Bening didn’t get an Oscar nomination for lead actress. Dorothea has this piercing look as she tries to fathom the world, and even though she comes away dumbfounded she keeps doing it. She keeps trying. But at 55, the world keeps getting away from her.
She’s there, all the time, whether inviting the fire chief to her house for dinner without a hint of flirtation, or with face scrunched as she tries to figure out what Black Flag is singing about. It’s a great homage to that generation of women—the ones who went to work during World War II and never lost the taste for it; who didn’t go quietly back into the home. Apparently it’s an homage to writer-director Mike Mills' own mother, just as his previous work, “Beginners,” from 2011, with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, was an homage to his father. I think this movie is better. A lot better. There’s more life in it. There’s wisdom.
Here’s Abbie to Jamie:
Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know it’s not going to be anything like that.
Here’s Jamie and Julie discussing women’s orgasms. She admits neither she nor her friends have them. So why have sex? he asks.
There’s other reasons. The way they look at me, the way they all get a little desperate at some point. The little sounds they make. [She imitates.] And their bodies. You don’t know exactly how they’re gonna look or smell or feel or whatever until you do it.
Julie, at this point, is worried she’s pregnant but she isn’t. Abbie is worried that the cancer will prevent her from having kids, but she has them. We keep finding out where our characters will wind up, and it helps heighten the current moment. Seeing Abbie in her early 30s, with her husband, house and two kids, which is everything she wanted in 1979, it’s nice but melancholy. We’re happy for her but she’s become someone else. Who is this guy she's with? Where’s the girl we knew?
I’ve always had a problem with Greta Gerwig but I love her here. Crudup gives one of his best performances, as does Bening in a career of great performances. Is Mills some kind of genius? It’s beyond the dialogue. If you take the original meaning of director—one who directs actors—who was better in 2016?
Longing for meaning
Some of the movie’s wisdom is even presidential. There’s a scene at one of Dorothea’s dinner parties where everyone gathers around the TV to watch Jimmy Carter giving his infamous “malaise” speech. Afterwards, the men in the room all declare him dead in the water, while Dorothea calls the speech beautiful. Both are right. Telling people they have no confidence isn’t a great way to give people confidence. At the same time, Carter nails what’s wrong with us:
There is a growing disrespect for government, the schools, the news media, and other institutions. ... Too many of us now tend to worship self indulgence and consumption. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself, involved in the search for freedom. We are at a turning point in our history. The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.
And we went that route. It’s kind of astonishing to listen to today. Carter was treating us as adults but we weren’t. “20th Century Women” is about a boy progressing just as the country was regressing. That second part isn’t bittersweet; these days, it's just bitter.