“20th Century Women” is a warm, sensitive, and humorous film about one adolescent boy who grows up with several colorful people around him during a notable social/cultural transition point in the 20th century American society. Now it sounds like your average quirky Sundance film, but its story and characters are imbued with the genuine sense of life and personality, and we are instantly drawn to their human matters as getting to know more about them.
The story is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, and the movie opens with one sudden absurd accident which happens to a car belonging to Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning). Brimming with her own gentle but strong personality, Dorothea is quite an open-minded woman who has surely had an interesting life as reflected by a montage sequence on her life. We learn that she went through the Depression era during her early years, and that hard time was probably the basis of her exceptional personality. While she went through a good number of men after her divorce, she does not feel the need of marrying again, and she also has no problem with raising her teenager son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone for years.
She lives with her son in a boarding house, where they live with their two tenants. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a young, independent photographer who is recently diagnosed that she has cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup) is a nice dude who once had a carefree time during the 1960s and now works as a carpenter/potter/mechanic without much thought on what will be the next step for his life. Added to this odd mix is Julie (Elle Fanning), a teenager girl who has been a close friend to Jamie since they were very young. As shown and told to us via her montage sequence, she is not so happy at her home, and that is the reason why she frequently comes into Jamie’s bedroom at night. Like any other boy around his age, Jamie becomes interested in going further than merely sleeping with her on his bed, but Julie does not allow that although she has already experienced several sexual encounters. She simply wants to remain as a friend to him, and this certainly confuses and frustrates Jamie.
As Jamie grows up day by day, it seems to Dorothea that her son needs more than her love and care for becoming a man, especially after one serious incident caused by a seemingly harmless prank among him and his friends. Maybe he needs a male role model, but William is not exactly qualified for that, so Dorothea suggests that Abbie and Julie should lead and teach him, though neither they nor Dorothea knows what exactly Jamie needs in this transition period of his.
Anyway, Abbie and Julie try as much as they can. Besides showing more of her current illness to Jamie, Abbie teaches him feminism via several books, and that leads to one of the most humorous moments in the film when Jamie explains to his mother how he got himself into a fight with some other boy. While still keeping the distance between Jamie and her, Julie comes to have more frank moments with him than before, and we get an amusing moment involved with her pregnancy test kit, which requires far more time than the ones in our era.
Meanwhile, Dorothea comes to feel more of the ongoing social/cultural change happening around her. The change is indeed coming as the 1970s is about to be ended, and that is reflected particularly well by the scene featuring the resigned speech of Jimmy Carter on TV, which feels like a sort of prelude to the approaching era of Ronald Reagan. At one point, she goes to a local nightclub along with William and Abbie, and she becomes more aware of the widening gap between her and her son during one reflective moment.
Rather than being driven by plot, the screenplay by the director Mike Mills, who received a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for his film early in this year, takes its time as carefully establishing its period background and characters via small individual moments. With modest but authentic period details which never draw our attention too much, its characters come to us as real human beings interesting enough to observe, and Mills also adds a nice recurring visual touch to accentuate the drifting sense of time around his characters.
Mills draws terrific performances from his main cast members. Annette Bening is warm and radiant in one of her best acting turns during recent years, and Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are equally wonderful in their respective nuanced performances. While Billy Crudup also gives a solid supporting performance on the fringe, young performer Lucas Jade Zumann holds his own place well among his co-performers. These talented performers are constantly engaging as flawlessly interacting with each other on the screen, and that is exemplified well by one particular scene unfolded on a dinner table. The mood suddenly becomes awkward as one of the characters in the scene blurts out something rather inappropriate, and the scene becomes increasingly nervous with more awkwardness, but we cannot help but amused thanks to the good comic timing of the main cast members.
Overall, “20th Century Women” is an intimate, observant character drama to admire, and it is as enjoyable as Mills’ previous work “Beginners” (2011), which can be regarded as the companion piece of “20th Century Women” considering that both of them are partially inspired by Mills’ relationship with his parents in real life. The loose narrative structure of the movie may require some patience, but it is worthwhile to watch thanks to its smart, thoughtful storytelling as well as a bunch of well-rounded performances to appreciate, and the result is delightful and heartfelt to say the least.