Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann
Annette, you were robbed. You too, Greta. 20th Century Women opened right at the very end of 2016 for an Oscar qualifying run (playing in just 4 theaters from December 28th to January 5th, and then expanding to a few hundred theaters in January) and I can't help but wish that instead of doing that, the distributor had held it back for a mid-year release this year. With a last minute qualifying run, 20th Century Women never really stood a chance (though it did manage to net one Oscar nomination, for writer/director Mike Mills for Best Original Screenplay). It's too small, too intimate, to be able to make an impact with that kind of release. It's the kind of film that needs a chance to marinate a bit and build an audience, not unlike Mills' previous film, Beginners, which received a June release and for which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar. But art is ultimately its own reward, and though it doesn't have a chance to walk away with the slew of awards it richly deserves, 20th Century Women will nevertheless go down as one of 2016's finest films.
Set in 1979, 20th Century Women is about a teenage boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), learning to become a man with the assistance of the women around him: his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer who rents a room in his mother's house. The house has a second renter, William (Billy Crudup), who might be better equipped to help Jamie along in his transition from adolescence to manhood, but the two have nothing in common aside from their gender and, despite Dorothea's best efforts to make William the male figure in Jamie's life (his father lives across the country and seems to have little involvement with him), they are unable to bond. So Jamie's lessons in masculinity come from these three women, the mother who is anxious that her son grow up to be well-rounded, the older friend who helps him cultivate his artistic tastes and tries to teach him how to pick up women, and the best friend with whom he is in love (or lust) and who sneaks into his bedroom every night to sleep beside him, but insists that she only sees him as a platonic friend.
Yet for as much as the story is about Jamie and the trial and error of the development of his personality as he negotiates the angst inherent in being a teenager, it's much more the story of Dorothea, a woman who is never quite comfortable. She wants to be a certain kind of person - not a certain kind of mother, but a certain kind of person - but can't quite reconcile the idea of who she'd like to be to the person she actually is. She lives like a bohemian in this big house that she's trying to renovate bit by bit, having taken in two boarders who have artistic bents and laidback attitudes to sex, and she invites people from all walks of life into her home for social gatherings as if she's the host of a salon, but she's never relaxed enough with any of it to actually enjoy it. When the talk around the dinner party gets too intimate and challenging, she sends everyone home; she asks Abbie to take her out to a club, then leaves almost as soon as she arrives; she asks Abbie and Julie to help her teach Jamie how to be a man, but balks at the wisdom they impart and tries to halt the experiment. Raised during the Depression, having put off settling down and having a family in order not just to pursue a career, but to pursue a career in a field so dominated by men that her colleagues just assume she must be a lesbian, having had her son late in life and experiencing with him what seems to be a larger than usual generational gap, she is forever out of step with what's going on around her, struggling to find a place for herself in the world just as Jamie is struggling to find his own.
There's really no overstating just how remarkable Bening's performance is, making Dorothea a character who is rich and real and very complex. There's a moment in the film when Jamie reads to his mother a passage from a book he's been reading, believing that the passage sums up his mother's experience and that this insight will be rewarded with something like gratitude, as if he's done her a favor by "seeing" her. Instead she regards him, she acknowledges that that must be how he sees her, and then informs him (with equal part insulted pride and motherly tenderness) that he's got it wrong and that the sad woman he's just described, the one who has reached the age where society no longer has any use for her, has nothing to do with her. He's tried to reduce her to a cliche, to a simple concept that's easy to understand and requires minimal effort, but there's nothing simple about Dorothea. She is large, she contains multitudes, and Bening captures every shade and gradient of her personality.
Bittersweet as it is, 20th Century Women is a joy to watch. Its characters are so well-conceived by Mills, so well played by these actors - Gerwig is the standout after Bening, playing a character who is contending with cervical cancer and who has returned to the hometown she thought she left far behind her (burning some bridges along the way) to receive treatment with the support of her mother, only to end up with a rift in that relationship for reasons that are emotionally and psychologically complicated - that it's almost a shame when the movie is over and you have to leave them behind, particularly since Mills opts against the ever popular open ending in favor of one that is defined by its sense of genuine finality. 20th Century Women is a beautiful film, one that I personally can't wait to revisit, and one which I hope will grow in stature as the years go on since it was so unfortunately passed by in 2016.