I can imagine what a negative review of 20th Century Women would say. I can imagine someone making the argument that the movie is nothing but a male fantasy about the awesomeness of women, and about how three generations of strong females turn a young boy into a man. I can imagine such an argument, because we’ve seen movies that look like 20th Century Women falter in exactly those areas. They settle for a condescending male point of view, and relegate their female characters to the role of manic-pixie-dream-girl and wise motherly figure. This is not such a movie. This is so much better than that.
Mike Mills, who broke through with Beginners, a lovely memoir about his father, now makes a lovely memoir about his formative years alongside his mother. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a woman who grew up during the depression and now raises a son (Lucas Jade Zunmann) in late-seventies Santa Barbara. Fearing the lack of a strong male presence in her son’s life, she recruits the help of two other women. Abby (Greta Gerwig), a post-punk photographer who rents a room in her house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), the best friend who Dorothea’s son hopes would become “something more”. These women are not supporting characters to the boy’s growth as a person. They are real characters, with inner lives, desires, conflicts and flaws.
There are five main characters in the movie (the other being another room-renter played by Billy Crudup), and they are all treated with respect and complexity. The biggest strength of 20th Century Women might very well be how generous it is toward them. It is a fresh and breezy movie, that manages to pack an acute sentimental punch inside its visions of pleasurable sunny California. There are moments in the movie (such as an intimate role-playing session between Gerwig and Crudup) that jump back and forth between comedy and tragedy in a way that only a person with a deep interest in human life could pull off.
Every character in this magnificent cast gets their chance to shine, but none of them shines brighter than Bening’s Dorothea. Turning what is essentially an ode to his mother into an ensemble piece is one of the director’s most brilliant choices. Bening shines when interacting with other performers, revealing intense amounts of information in every interaction her character has with the people who populate her household. The easy, natural vibe of Bening’s performance binds the movie together. We don’t need to be told that Dorothea is a formidable woman, we experience it ourselves. 20th Century Women is a lovely experience of humanist filmmaking at its best, and if that weren’t enough, it serves as a reminder that one of our greatest living actresses is still turning out some of her best work.
Grade: 9 out of 10