“20th Century Women” is a quirky and nostalgic film set in 1979 Santa Barbara County, Calif., that reflects on a boy’s coming of age in an era – and a household – of ascending feminism.
A semiautobiographical story of writer-director Mike Mills’ childhood, the film is a tribute to the women who raised him. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last month, Mills described his film as “a thank-you note” to his late mom and an account of other resilient feminine influences during his adolescence.
The character based on Mills, played by Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, is an awkward teenage boy with no consistent father figure in his life. Jamie’s determined-but-overwhelmed single mother, Dorothea, is played by Annette Bening, who received a Golden Globe nomination for the role.
Dorothea, who runs a boarding house, enlists two other women to help raise Jamie, as she’s increasingly uncertain of her capabilities. Her own crisis of confidence comes at the same time as the country’s – exhibited as the characters watch President Carter’s midsummer speech amid an energy crisis and ever-changing social norms.
Dorothea is a complex mix of feminine toughness and free-spirited flakiness, who is bound by the fears of the Depression era in which she was raised. She recognizes the changes to come in her son’s life and feels she knows him less each day, yet is determined to teach him what it is to be a good man.
Dorothea asks Julie (Elle Faning), Jamie’s best friend, and Abbie (Gretta Gerwig), a young boarder, to assist.
Julie is a rebellious and troubled teenager. She’s raised by a psychiatrist mother who treats her as a social experiment, involving her in group-therapy sessions.
Julie’s life is shaped by Judy Blume’s novels on female adolescence and self-exploration. She shares stories of her promiscuity with a tortured Jamie, knowing he wants more than a platonic friendship.
Abbie is an artistic photographer who has a need to express herself to the world. Abbie is frustrated by the limitations of quiet Santa Barbara, as she extols literature showing the power of the feminine and music showing the power of free expression.
Julie and Abbie separately take Jamie on a series of adventures, expanding his geographic, cultural and literary bases. He learns more about the female experience – and punk rock – than most boys.
Chain-smoking, self-doubting Dorothea comes to regret exposing Jamie to so much and eventually reclaims him from the other women. But mother and son touchingly come to a greater appreciation for one another through the experience.
“20th Century Women” will be most familiar to those in Generation X, who grew up in a time between free-love hippies and girl-power shoulder pads. Music from Black Flag and the Talking Heads set this dramatic comedy in time.
Ruminating monologues made some parts slow and unfocused. But the plodding is lightened by comedy.
An early scene of the family car bursting into flames culminates with Dorothea awkwardly inviting the firefighters to dinner, to Jamie’s embarrassment and the audience’s laughter. The film’s most memorable scene is an uproarious kitchen-table discussion on menstruation.
“20th Century Women” is currently playing at Maui Mall.