A Teen's Journey Through Adolescence With 20th Century Women
In 20th Century Women, a teen facing some typical growing up problems gets guidance from three women close to him. The boy is Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old living in Santa Barbara in 1979 with his divorced 55-year-old mother Dorothea (Annette Benning), a draftsman for a local business. His father moved across the country after the divorce, and has no personal contact with the boy. Jamie spends a lot of time exploring the world, and sometimes does this in a dangerous fashion. When one incident lands him in the hospital, Dorothea turns to two women much younger than she to be a positive influence on Jamie. One of them is Dorothea's 24-year-old boarder Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), a newspaper photographer and cancer survivor. She shares his taste in music, though her sense of adventure is somewhat safer than Jamie's. She teaches him lessons on being more in touch with women.
The other is the Fields' 17-year-old neighbor, Julie Miller (Elle Fanning), who quietly visits Jamie in the night. Julie, like Jamie, feels out of touch with her mother, a therapist who makes Julie sit in on sessions with troubled teens and contribute. She's been intimate with boys, but tells Jamie how unsatisfactory those moments have been. He wants to be the one for Julie, but he doesn't share those feelings with her. The one male presence in his life is Dorothea's other boarder, William (Billy Crudup), a former hippie who does repairs to the home and to the cars of the residents. Dorothea feels out of touch with her boy, but her parenting is put to the test when Jamie and Julie plan a weekend getaway without telling her in advance.
Writer-director Mike Mills, drawing from his own experiences as a teenager, tells the story of 20th Century Women using four different narrators - Dorothea, Julie, Abbie, and Jamie. Each adds a perspective to their lives, and viewers learn how each of them had an effect on Jamie. Jamie himself points out the generation gap between his Greatest Generation mother and himself, a child of Generation X. Mills shows stock footage and adds music from the time of Dorothea's youth, and shows the stark contrast between the age of crooners and the age of punk and new wave. Abbie and Julie encourage Jamie to be interested in the whole woman, and not just the things he has in common with a person of the opposite sex. The narration is an unusual choice, but Mills has been there before. In his previous film, Beginners (2010), he used subtitles to interpret the thoughts of the dog belonging to Christopher Plummer's character. Mills certainly captures the sights, sounds, and attitude from that era, but the story doesn't really transcend a typical coming-of-age tale that ends predictably. The journey, nevertheless, is more satisfying than not.
This film has some very good performances. Bening looks aged and sometimes bewildered as Dorothea, a mother who wonders how well she can raise Jamie without a strong male presence. Still, she does share more than a roof with her son, as she teaches him to read the stock market results so he can understand the value of the assets she intends to one day hand down to him. She focuses so much on her home and her parenting, she almost doesn't notice that a co-worker has taken a liking to her. Fanning, as Julie, is a traveler down the same paths as Jamie, though the age difference between the two makes anything more than a friendship unlikely. Gerwig has created characters like Abbie in Frances Ha and Mistress America, but this performance tones down the annoying factor the others didn't. Abbie speaks her mind, and sometimes irritates with those words. She dreams of creating a photo exhibit of a day in her life. Her words, though, register with Jamie in a way that surprises her. Zumann captures a boy in transition as Jamie, who still likes his friends and his skateboarding, but wants to become involved with someone like Julie. He takes advantage of a house where women are more prevalent than men to gain some sort of understanding. Crudup is an easy-going guy trying to find his way in life, much like the other characters. He has learned some hard lessons, but he also loves the work he does with his hands.
One of the other moments besides the ones involving the characters that resonates in 20th Century Women comes with Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech. There, the then-President addresses his concerns about the disintegration of families and communities as people began to measure their worth by what they owned instead of who they were. The message not only struck a chord with Dorothy, but also seems to be a message that could apply to so many today. Dorothea Fields knows that she'll never have the sort of insight into Jamie his peers have, but she still wants and needs to be a part of his life. In 20th Century Women, she gets help from his peers to get through this phase of his life. She knows this life will have waves of good times and bad times, and wants to make sure her son will see that as he heads toward adulthood. Most of all, Dorothea wants Jamie to learn from his mistakes so that he might one day be in a position to share what he has learned from the women who loved him and cared for him in their own way.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give 20th Century Women three stars. A teen reaches a turning point.