20th Century Women (2016)
Directed by Mike Mills
Director Mike Mills (“Beginners”) wrote “20th Century Women” as a sort of thank you letter to his mom and his sisters, the women who raised him after his parents divorced and his dad moved away.
Growing up in the 1970s, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) suffers a crisis of identity. His loving mom Dorothea (Annette Bening) tasks Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), two girls that rent rooms in her spacious home, with teaching him things they think he should know. Dorothea feels too old and too out of touch to raise her son to be the man she wants him to be. Jamie is reluctant to take advice from the girls at first, but eventually the women, with the help of another renter, William (Billy Crudup), crack Jamie’s façade and get him to open up.
Dorothea is one of the year’s most stellar film characters. Annette Bening steals the spotlight, playing Dorothea with all of the genuine complexities she deserves. She never once trips up—the four-time Oscar nominee has got this acting thing down. She’s already received several award nominations for the role. But she shares the stage with two up-and-comers who have some talent themselves. Greta Gerwig deserves attention for playing another complicated character. Abbie is a young cancer survivor, amateur photographer, and conscious feminist—and Gerwig, typically the loud and arrogant type, here gives a subdued performance we can not only relate to but admire. And Elle Fanning, fresh off the what-the-f*ckery of “The Neon Demon” (see it anyway—it’s a trip), shows that same quiet, hypnotic entrancement. And the young Zumann gives Jamie all the “What’s a man supposed to be like” confusion of a free-love era high schooler.
Mills is on the right track. “20th Century Women” is a lovely treatise on single motherhood. Since he pulled from his own experiences, he crafts the 1970s realistically, not with the shag carpeting and wood paneled walls that you’re used to. He uses the setting without making it a focal point. But “20th Century Women” often veers off track. It becomes not enough about too much. If you’ve seen “Beginners,” you already know Mills is good at building characters. Here, he’s characteristically detailed, but he kept getting sidetracked with trippy interludes that distract you from the main idea of the story. I’ve never seen “The Vagina Monologues,” but I imagine it’s like the middle hour of “20th Century Women.” It’s an amazing character study, but it’s not nearly long enough or focused enough—one or the other—to say what it means to say.