20th Century Women is about a man. Actually, it’s about masculinity. And femininity. And sexuality. And getting old and growing up and moving on and being a better Jamie.
Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann with cotton-fresh nonchalance), is a 15-year-old boy who was born in the sixties, grew up with Nixon, protests and bogus containment wars. He has a very cool mother, Dorothea, (Annette Bening) and inhabits a very cool culture (California, 1979), both of which encourage freedom of expression and individuality. But in an age of post-WW2 meaningless, when it’s almost the eighties and cocaine, Reagan and HIV aren’t quite a thing yet; when all legit wars are over but the Hiroshima hangover and Normandy night out are still patriotically (yawn) present; when men have either become alcoholics or abusive police officers to cope with their depression and rage, building a progressive future isn’t easy.
And that’s because those same men are the builders. Obviously. A democratic president is about to be replaced with a Republican. And teenage boys will continue to violently argue over the location of the clitoris (if they even know what it is), rather than read a book or, holy shit, actually listen to a woman.
Jamie’s a sensitive boy. His dad left his mum years ago and the two of them live in a run-down old house with tenants Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a twenty-something photographer and recovering cancer patient, and William (Billy Crudup), a thirty-something mechanic with soft hands. Jamie’s best mate is Julie, slightly older but with the savvy fragility of Esther Greenwood, played impressively by Elle Fanning. Julie bangs douchebags in the back of cars then climbs up some scaffolding on the side of Jamie’s house to sneak into his room for the post-coital cuddle. It’s not great, but we’ve all been there. And, as Dorothea says, “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.”
Word. Dorothea speaks not only from the experience of a divorced person, but of the experience of all of the women in the film. And that experience is bigger than failed romance. It’s about the heartbreak of being a second-class citizen. Of being a vessel for male pleasure, a baby making machine before turning into just another mother. But what happens when men say they’ll pull out and don’t? Or when cervical cancer leaves you unable to have children? Or you get so old that no one wants to fuck you anymore? Dorothea, at least, enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to raise her teenage son to not be a dick.
But “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” ask stupid people everywhere (in this case Abbie, who is not a stupid person, just emotionally drained and horny).
“No,” says Dorothea, played excellently by Bening, whose wet-eyed smile contrasts heart-wrenchingly with her dark lipstick and fingernail emoji countenance.
It doesn’t go down well with Jamie, however, because he’s already on it. He doesn’t need his mother’s help, let alone his mothers’ help. Also, he wants to fuck one of them. So he’s reading Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. He’s asking questions. He’s getting beaten up by macho kids at the skate park. And he’s been painfully friendzoned.
It’s fine. He’ll learn. Still young, Jamie can leave old masculinity behind, while Crudup’s William completes the role of saddest character because he cannot. Approaching his 40s, he’s just young enough to witness, and to some extent partake in, or at least try and understand, Jamie’s generation: up-tempo, sincere and accessible to new ideas. Yet it’s an ideological world he can’t truly be a part of. And, like Dorothea, he’s destined fall by the wayside.
I’m not trying to make this review too male-centric. 20th Century Women is carried by Bening, Gerwig and Fanning, who are a large part of why writer-director Mike Mills (A MAN) is able to create such wonderful female characters: developed, flawed, funny and human. On the other hand, by being set in a time as pivotal as, broadly speaking, the second half of the 20th Century, this film’s beautiful cinematography and wardrobe create an air of nostalgia that is ever so slightly annoying. Its sun bleached central Cali is overgrown and dusty. The world of Dorothea and Jamie resembles a dystopian video game city; an old world ready to dissolve. But the world that everyone’s hoping will take its place, one of punk rock music and home pregnancy tests, is a world that will never begin. Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech didn’t echo in a new era of anti-consumerism and progression over restless malaise. It opened the door for Reagan.
So why wasn’t this 21st Century Women? Maybe it’s Mills writing another version of his mother in Dorothea, in the same way he may (or may not, Death of the Author ‘n’ all that) have done for his father in 2010’s Beginners? For the regular viewer, however, this isn’t a personal history. It’s not a documentary. It’s not something anthropology undergrads can watch through the lens of a Polaroid, thinking, ‘Wow, I’m so glad men were fixed before the millennium.’ Men weren’t fixed. People don’t speak about menstruation round the dinner table.
20th Century Women is about shaping people the right way. It’s good. It’s very good. And that’s what’s truly sad about this film: it makes you feel hopeful whilst knowing that [bad] history has/is/will happened/happening/happen again and that human beings must constantly readapt to fit in, identify and accept themselves whilst rejecting all the dicks who run the show. There’s disappointment in knowing that not enough has changed; that people still hurt other people for reasons based on ideas that should’ve ended way before the 20th Century. Just remember that when Dorothea says, “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed,” you’ve probably forgotten that good things can repeat themselves too.
Review by Harry Gallon
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