The title of Mike Mill’s latest film, 20th Century Women, is slightly misleading. Though led by a cast of notable actresses including Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning (definitely Elle. Definitely not Dakota. No, I didn’t have to confirm that on IMDb. You did.), this is actually Jamie’s story (Lucas Jade Zumann), the fifteen-year-old boy surrounded by female influence as he navigates…being a fifteen-year-old boy.
If you’re familiar with Mill’s previous film, Beginners, the humanity and sincerity of 20th Century Women won’t come as much of a surprise. He zooms in on interpersonal relationships, on stumbling through everyday life and hopefully coming out the other side. He tills familiar territory again here, perhaps even more deftly, if slightly less coherently. He’s bolder in his shots, less linear in his narrative.
Jamie is the only son of Dorthea (Bening), and they live in a big old house in 1979 Santa Barbara, also occupied by a few boarders (punk Abby (Gerwig) and handyman William (Billy Crudup)) and Jamie’s slightly older and very lovely best friend Julie, who occasionally sleeps (and, to Jamie’s chagrin only sleeps) over. Jamie’s father long gone, it’s been just he and his mom for years, which is all well and good until Dorthea decides he’s ready for something different and enlists the gang in his upbringing.
That’s essentially where the plot of this heartfelt character study ends, as the film really plays out more in episodes than a single storyline. There’s the unexpected weight of Abby dealing with an unexpected cervical cancer diagnosis and Julie’s efforts to understand her own burgeoning sexuality, but the film shines when it pauses in the story long enough to let us take in the moment. And there are quite a few of those moments. (There’s a particularly moving one between Abby and Dorthea; as the latter tears up, I had to keep my own eyes from doing the same.)
One could be forgiven for being entirely bewtiched by Bening’s outwardly together / inwardly lost older mother figure (she was 40, we’re told, when she had Jamie), who steals the show with her timing, her nuance, her mere presence. Dorthea is certainly at the center of this world, and intentionally. When the family car spontaneously combusts in the grocery store parking lot, she invites the firemen back to the house for her birthday party that night. Every seat at her table is filled for Sunday dinners, drawing people to her the way she does.
Mills, who also wrote the screenplay, certainly has a knack for the female perspective; the film passes the Bechdel test quite handily. In addition to Dorthea, both Abby and Julie (performances that are also lovely, a note I hardly ever make of the over-played Gerwig) have moments of honest relatability, a rarity in female-driven films written by men.
But as the movie progresses, it’s clear this is really Jamie’s world we’ve entered, and as Dorthea, Abby, Julie and William try to show him the ways of the world (each in their own way), they may only succeed in confusing him further. He rebels, heading to L.A. for a night of drinking (oh, the late ’70s). He gets in over his head when he does try to man up, out of his league when he accompanies Abby on a somber doctor’s visit. For every two steps he takes forward, it’s a step (or more) back. “I want to be a good guy,” he says plaintively at one point. He (Mills?) is clearly dealing with a for a fifteen year old. For anyone.
At just under two hours, Mills has made his point – a welcome one – in plenty of time, and a portion of the last third of the film feels unnecessary. But it’s in this last third that he ultimately ties it all together. As we’ve met each of these characters and come to know them in both past and present, we learn their futures as well. In a scene that plays not in the slightest disingenuous, we’re glimpsing not just the outcome of this unlikely family unit but of ourselves, of the connections we all long for and use this time we’re given to cultivate. As the credits roll over As Time Goes By, we recall that, whatever it we spend it doing, it really does.