The statement-making title, 20th Century Women, belies how small a film this is despite its ambitiousness. This is the story of a liberal 55-year old divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in 1979 Santa Barbara who is having trouble figuring out how to parent her seemingly normal 15-year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). She asks for help from 24-year old photographer Abbie who boards with her and 17-year old Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend who oddly sneaks in bed with him every night but refuses to have sex with him. Julie does sleep around a lot but only with boys she isn’t close to.
As it becomes clear, Julie and Abbie don’t exactly have their own lives in order such that they are in any position to impart great wisdom to Jamie. Julie hates her therapist mother who makes her sit in on communal therapy sessions with other teenage girls, but the mother’s influence on her is clear when in normal social settings, Julie engages in therapist-speak or feels free to blurt out uncomfortable personal stories. Abbie, who has pink hair, is artsy and into the punk scene by way of going to NYU, and is recovering from cervical cancer. A second boarder, William (Billy Crudup), a humble jack of all trades who is more than meets the eye, complicates the scenario with romantic signals between him and Abbie and him and Dorothea.
In their “training up” of Jamie, Julie hilariously instructs Jamie as to how men should smoke cigarettes while Abbie introduces him to feminist literature. But this comedy isn’t broad like these situations might imply. The tone is mostly a cross between American indie quirk (this is when the film is at its weakest) and self-serious stagey meaning of life/state of society play (not a lot better but definitely better). The story and how the characters act don’t feel real or natural. There’s also a throw everything at the wall and see what stick feel to the exercise.
The soundtrack includes a lot of hip punk rock along with classic jazz and a bit of David Bowie. There’s an amusing scene with Dorothea trying to make sense of Black Flag while she and William contrast them with The Talking Heads in a battle of the bands fashion. Along with the aforementioned punk scene and feminist writing, there are a lot of other cultural references in the film that play a thematic role from Casablanca to Koyaanisqatsi to Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which feels pretty pertinent right now.
Writer-director Mike Mills exudes a lot of embarrassing earnestness and the film really shouldn’t work, but it does because the cast is just so fine and makes the characters so grounded and engaging. All the actors are working at their peaks and even Gerwig keeps her Gerwig mannerisms to a minimum. Gerwig was fresh and appealing when she first appeared on the scene in Joe Swanberg films 10 years ago but has kept playing similar characters to the point of exhaustion. Abbie is not another copy-and-paste Gerwig persona. Relative newcomer Zumann empathetically conveys Jamie’s confusion, confidence, and yearning at different times in a tricky part. Bening has never been better and gets to express the full emotional spectrum. Elle Fanning is simply one of the best actors around even at her incredibly precocious age 18. One could do a lot worse than spend two hours in this company.