If there’s one thing that history teaches us time and time again, it’s that the past makes us feel like experts and the future makes us look like fools — we think we know where we’re going because we know where we’ve been. But it often doesn’t work out like that. At the end of the day, the world is something that you have to experience for yourself, even if it can take a movie like “20th Century Women” to help make that clear.
To quote a magenta-haired photographer named Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who probably never suspected she’d spend the summer of 1979 shuffling between the California boarding house where she’s staying and the hospital where she’s being treated for cervical cancer: “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that.”
It’s one of many, many moments in this limpid, light, and beautifully remembered film in which your thoughts might drift to the scene in “Mad Men” when advertising exec Bertram Cooper delivers an impromptu eulogy for the secretary who died at her desk: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”
Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) never quite manages to reach the stratosphere, but that doesn’t make her flight any less remarkable. She came into this world just before the Great Depression, and always dreamed of being an aviatrix like Amelia Earhart. When we meet her, the year is 1979, and she’s not a pilot but the proprietor of a rickety Santa Barbara boarding house where she raises her 14-year-old son with the help of three semi-permanent tenants. On her birthday, she leans over the sloppy cake she’s baked for her own surprise party and quietly sighs away her latest trip around the sun: “Okay, got through that one.”
Later, long before the end of the densely layered “20th Century Women,” we are told exactly where and when Dorothea will die, the information delivered with the same existential flippancy that spills into every dark nook of Mike Mills’ big-hearted and bittersweet bear hug of a memoir, by far the most moving and mature of the four films he’s made to date.
Mills may not have conceived “20th Century Women” as a companion piece to 2010’s “Beginners,” but that’s quite literally what he made — that film was a twee and tragicomic reflection on the peril of his father’s death, while this one applies a similar (if more nuanced and expansive) approach to the prime of his mother’s life. Both of these autobiographical reveries are preoccupied with how difficult it can be for people to relate to their parents, particularly when the age gap is wide enough to swallow any cultural overlap. Both of them splash around in what Mills’ “Beginners” stand-in describes as “the sadness that our parents didn’t have time for and the happiness that we never saw with them,” and both of them are sprinkled with cutesy postmodern affectations that should be a lot more cloying than they are. But this one is funny, and not just sweet.
And where “Beginners” got snagged in its constant skipping between the fight with cancer and the rubble that’s left behind, “20th Century Women” focuses its attention on a single idyllic summer and strains to hold on to that one perfect moment when everything felt like it would last forever. This is the rare movie that’s redeemed by its unchecked nostalgia.
The first thing that Dorothea tells her only child is that “life is big and unknown,” but those words come back to bite her by when Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, so good at threading the needle between a sponge and a blank slate) turns into a teenager and wants to see for himself. He’s a good kid, but he’s changing. He has idiot friends, now, the kind that convince you that it would be so cool to play fun asphyxiation games. He’s discovered punk, which is just popping its head out of the underground. He’s also discovered a new tension when Julie (Elle Fanning), the precocious and sexually progressive girl next door, climbs the scaffolding up to his bedroom window every night and slips into bed like she always has. The older Jamie gets, the less his mom feels like she knows him (and vice versa).
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“Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” someone asks. So Dorothea invites a parade of guys over to the house for dinner, eager to provide father figures for her son. Nothing sticks. William, an ex-hippie handyman (a charmingly taciturn Billy Crudup) lives on the second floor, but he’s not much interested in playing catch — if anything, he’s lost in the trenches with Jamie, both of them trying to figure out what it means to be a man in the age of Jimmy Carter and his “Crisis of Confidence.” After Vietnam, but before Reagan. After the Talking Heads, but before “Remain in Light.”
Dorothea wants to help, and turns to the only help she’s got: The other women in Jamie’s life. In addition to Julie, there’s Abbie, an artist who rents the room down the hall from Jamie. At first, it seems she might be an insufferable bundle of quirks, a manic pixie dream girl who’s been callously saddled with an “incompetent cervix” in order to bring her down from the clouds. But this isn’t that kind of movie — these characters all have full lives ahead of them. Abbie comes up with a new project, deciding to take a picture of everything that happens to her in a day, only for Julie to snap back: “I didn’t happen to you!” And she’s right. All of them are still in the process of happening to themselves. Even Dorothea, prickly and self-involved though she is.
Needless to say, the potential for all of this to nosedive into navel-gazing nonsense is crazy high, especially as Mills — per his custom — stubbornly resists anything that might resemble a plot. “20th Century Women” is more of an anthropological film than a narrative one, more interested in sculpting a pocket of time into a memory palace than forcing its characters towards unearned realizations. For once, all of the precious flourishes — the dueling voiceovers, the shimmery synth soundtrack, the wavy color lines that trail behind all of the cars — actually feel in service to something larger than themselves. They speak to the characters, who are all so richly drawn, and they focus through the rose-tinted lens through which the film remembers their time together.
Likewise, the crystalline edge of the film’s dialogue (which may otherwise have been too sharp to be sufferable), contributes to the feeling of a lost idyll by making every line feel so acutely perfect and profound that it can be folded into its own discrete moment and ring in Jamie’s ears for the rest of his life.
Some moments don’t pull their weight, and some seem almost as confused as the characters stumbling through them (a bit at the dinner table involving the word “menstruation” is a bizarre trip into the less soluble, more Sundance version of this movie), but Mills’ cast always keeps it together. The best thing about Bening’s performance is how she allows Dorothea to succumb to the distance between herself and her son — she’s tough and standoffish, and her dynamic with Jamie feels crucially real as a result. They love one another, but they’ll never be friends; they may be related by blood, but they also come from such different worlds that it’s hard to imagine how they belong to the same species. So while Dorothea is more the soul of this movie than she is one of its standouts, and Bening doesn’t show us much that we haven’t seen from her before (more like a carefully arranged collage of her turns in “American Beauty” and “The Kids Are All Right”), her portrayal does the film a necessary service.
Gerwig and Fanning get to have all the fun. Both are always good, but neither has ever been better; they fiercely protect the full dimension of their characters, radiating enough light for Jamie to remember them for the rest of his life, but never allowing it to feel like they are merely happening to him. With their help, “20th Century Women” becomes an unambiguous celebration of women as pioneers, as protectors, and as invaluable role models for young men. And so — from his film’s unwieldy title to its boundless final shot — Mills invites us to wonder if people are defined by their times, or if the times are defined by their people. To wonder what it means to be a good man, and if that definition has changed since he started to become one in the summer of 1979. Most of all, he creates a space for us to wonder at the trajectory of our lives, memorialize the places where they intersect, and marvel obliviously at the thought of where they might take us next.
“20th Century Women” is premiering at the New York Film Festival. It will open in theaters on December 25.
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