Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann
Release Date: Feb 10
This is a film about sex, women and becoming a man.
Before flashbacks of American Pie start dancing in your memory, rest assured, this is an intelligent piece of film-making that is exactly what the world needs right now.
20th Century Women takes place in 1979, where proud divorcee Dorothea Fields (Bening) is raising her teenage son Jamie (Zumann). Unnerved by the lack of positive male role models in her sons life (this was the era of punk after all), she sets herself a task:
To mould her son into a man, with the help of one of her artistic left-wing tenants (Gerwig) and a teenage girl from a troubled family (Fanning).
Actors lie awake at night dreaming of scripts like this one. Each of our main players boasts a meaty and engaging personality. They have complexity, layers and agency. And they get to dress in funky late 70s wardrobe. Really, what’s not to love?
Much like regular people, they have a fine balance of joy and sorrow running through their lives, neither of which accurately defines who they are. This is lovingly reflected in bittersweet dialogue, like:
“Back then, people drove in sad little cars to sad little houses”.
The plot could be accused of meandering, but that’s an easy thing to forgive, given the company we’re in. Just as a good dinner party isn’t driven by any sort of end goal, we’re here to savour the delights rather than simply say we’re done. It might not necessarily be a comedy, but it deals in the sort of wit that leaves a continual smile on your face. It’s funny in much the same way life can be funny.
For example, many of the stand-out scenes are muddled and unremarkable, involving dancing in bedrooms or discussing feminist literature. It’s to the films’ credit that, while this might sound dull, it never is. It could easily be a play and it would likely sell out every night if it were.
The undeniable star of the feature is Annette Bening, who brings vibrancy to the tired trope of the chain-smoking single mom. She’s a loving parent, friend to all and sharp-tongued when the occasion calls for it. Her underlying melancholy is rarely highlighted and it’s a testament to her incredible skill that she can convey it so subtly, simply in her performance.
One of the most endearing moments of the film involves her trying in vain to figure out the logistics of the slur ‘art fag’, which someone defaces her property with. She outright refuses to accept it as a term and coasts through the experience on the waves of her own logic.
This is the film’s biggest strength; its singular and honest approach and willingness to question the norm. Another tenant, William (Crudup), is the only prominent male in Jamie’s life and, on the surface, appears to be an ideal role model. Hard-working, generous and even handsome, he has many of the qualities associated with good men. Except, in a delicious irony, neither he nor Jamie have anything in common.
There was clear joy in writing that development, as well as subverting other expectations. In another very welcome twist, the film refuses to penalise Elle Fanning’s character, Julie, for sleeping around with other boys, despite her age and Jamie having feelings for her. In any other film, she would either be lost or saved by Jamie from her evil sexual addiction. Here, her liberation is, if not celebrated, then at least accepted.
“Half the time, I regret it,” she admits to Jamie.
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because half the time, I don’t,” she bluntly replies, with heart-warming sincerity.
As evident from that line alone, this isn’t a happy film, but it is both optimistic and uplifting without compromising realism. Embodying this ideal almost since her career began is Greta Gerwig, whose character, Abbie, deserves a film all to herself. Without spoiling anything, she doesn’t exist primarily as a mentor for Jamie. Instead, accepts him into her lifestyle, with varying levels of success. In teaching him how to assert himself, she walks a fine line in ensuring he doesn’t become a misogynist in the process.
“Just agree with guys when they talk about girls, even if it’s wrong. Guys hate being contradicted.”
She says this, not because it’s Right, but because, lest we forget, this is still 1979.
The three women don’t always agree on each other’s views and in this lies the beating heart of the story. All of this information is being fired at Jamie (and us) from different directions. It’s understandable that he (and us) come out of it a little disoriented, with some very funny results.
With so many contradictions taking place, who is right?!
What, when you get right down to it, defines a man?
And how important is that definition, when all is said and done?
These are the questions the film poses and Jamie (like us) is expected to formulate his own answers instead of being given a solution.
Pointedly, this doesn’t feel like a period piece. Big names, like Richard Nixon, are dropped but unlike films such as Dazed and Confused, the warm feelings you come out with aren’t that of nostalgia. And perhaps that is the point?
Perhaps it uses the format of the late 70s, where gender politics can be clearly comprehended by even the most dull-witted of patriarchs, and layers it over the current day?
Perhaps in doing this, it tries to highlight the more subtle, but no less rampant, imbalance of gender equality in today’s society?
Perhaps, like many things, it is more important to ask a question than to receive an answer.
Written by Stephen Hill