There’s a scene in 20th Century Women when Dorothea (Annette Bening) tries to confront her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) about his troubles. He strikes back at her with her own troubles: her loneliness as a single parent, her smoking habits. She’s dumbfounded, rightfully so, and she tells him that he can’t talk to her like that. He’s her son and she’s the mother.
Too real. It’s an issue in my own life, talking back. Sorry, mom. Sorry, dad. But that reality, conjured in that scene, is the perfect example of why 20th Century Women works: this specific story tells a universal one. There’s a moment in here, somewhere, that will hit you the way that moment hit me.
After this confrontation, Dorothea decides to enlist the help of Julie (Elle Fanning), a friend of Jamie’s since childhood and the current target of Jamie’s affections, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a boarder in their home and a feminist punk artist, in order to help her understand and raise Jamie. This idea doesn’t appeal to Jamie, breaking up their relationship a little bit more. Slowly, though, Jamie opens up to the idea, and begins to learn from the three women.
20th Century Women nods to the 70s without ever feeling overtly nostalgic towards them. There’s little drops here and there -- the wonderful musical choices throughout, Abbie dying her hair red after watching “The Man Who Fell to Earth” -- but the film is less focused on that, thankfully. Instead, it focuses on five people, including the so-far unmentioned William (Billy Crudup), another boarder at Dorothea’s home. The film gives each character a certain amount of time to shine with a use of switching voiceover narration that feels fun and unique.
The humor of 20th Century Women is key to the film’s charm. While I found the beginning to be a little lacking in that department, the second half delivers the humor in droves. There’s so many fantastic bits in here, perfectly timed and delivered in each worthwhile performance. And while there are serious themes here -- being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, an inability to connect with people romantically --the film balances these moments effectively and never feels jarring doing it.
Mike Mills’ direction is imbued with style, containing fast-motion and psychedelic scenes which reflect the punk era that Jamie is living in, while still being playful and never too serious. His screenplay is dense, touching on many issues, while still being organized and rooted in a perspective.
I want to see 20th Century Women again. It’s fun and quick but yet insightful and caring, leaving me very touched by the end. See it. Or, rather, see it with your mom.