WRITER-DIRECTOR MIKE MILLS SHINES LIGHT AND LOVE ON 3 WOMEN IN THE LATE ’70s
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: (l-r) Billy Crudup as William, Elle Fanning as Julie, Annette Bening as Dorothea, Greta Gerwig as Abbie, and Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie in ‘20th Century Women’ Rating: R Grade: B+
As a man raised almost exclusively in the company of women, I recognized a certain kinship with Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the young man at the center of writer-director Mike Mills’ sentimental, yet whip-smart “20th Century Women.” Jamie, a bright and inquisitive teenager, with a mother named Dorothea (Annette Bening) intent on preparing him to be more than just another prototypical provider in a patriarchal culture, was a few years ahead of me by 1979, the year the film is set. But that and the obvious differences in race and geography matter little in the overall scheme of things.
Jamie surfed the long, wave-like hills of suburban Southern California, while I cautiously walked the streets Asheville, North Carolina, a couple of decades before its sweepingly progressive transformation, when the city was still caught up in the quietly segregated mindset of the post-Civil Rights era South. He enjoyed the privilege of living in a cocoon, where stepping outside the guidelines and laws (underage drinking, smoking, and promiscuity) conferred a brand of cool, whereas I was taught that to stray off the beaten path could result in a lifelong dead end.
But what we had were mothers with their eyes on our futures, women with hearts and minds trained on capably delivering us into adulthood with a unique set of skills that would transcend the old definitions of what it meant to be not just men, but human.
In the case of “20th Century Women,” that sets us up for a radical narrative, which dares to draw the focus away from Jamie to Dorothea and her would-be partners-in-crime—Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning). Dorothea owns a sprawling work-in-progress home, which comes to feel a bit like a slightly more stable post-hippie commune, where she hosts gatherings—dinners and parties—that morph into freewheeling intellectual affairs, all for Jamie’s benefit. She wants to expose him to cultural and critical debate, opportunities for him to listen and learn, and when he proves ready, to engage.
Abbie rents a room in the house and she brings a punkish artistic energy to the space. You sense that Dorothea sees a bit of her younger self in Abbie and wants to expose Jamie to this faded fragment. Julie, on the other hand, is just a couple of years older than Jamie. She’s the girl-next-door, the crush he’s working toward acknowledging despite the potential loss. She’s the first heartbreak that Dorothea knows will shape him into a more sensitive soul.
And it is intriguing that Dorothea makes no attempt to hide her grand scheme from either Abbie or Julie. In fact, she pointedly lets them in on the plan. She explains that they are vital surrogates because they get to see him in the world in ways she knows she can’t. Dorothea embraces the notion that she can’t, and probably shouldn’t, shield Jamie from the full spectrum of life and the consequences of his choices, so she seeks to guide him via her carefully chosen guardian angels.
Which sets the stage for the narrative to displace Jamie, and as the shift occurs, the movie takes on a novelistic feel. We start to appreciate that it has been a long-distance relay with the baton being passed from runner to runner on this ensemble-like team.
Dorothea kicks things off, with years of accumulated experience and steely intelligence as her strengths. When she hands things off to Abbie, we see her facing adult challenges head-on with her fearlessness tempered by the first hint of fallibility. Then, “20th Century Women” gives us the full bloom of potential awaiting young Julie. She already has a healthy cynicism in the hierarchal structure of society and its willingness to shame the burgeoning independence of women, but there’s no stopping her.
Each performer gets to shine during her leg, carrying the burden for a time before handing it off. And at the end, it is Jamie who brings us to the finish line, providing a loving testament to the marvelous women who defined his life, and a generation, nearing the end of a tumultuous American century.