A chain-smoking single mother who, at 55, is having a crisis of conscience with regard to her ability to successfully prepare her 15-year-old son for his ascent into manhood, Dorothea is a marvellous character played to perfection by Annette Bening in this latest offering from writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners). Intelligent, gregarious, open-minded and opinionated, Dorothea lives with her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and a couple of boarders in Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer recovering from cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), a hippie-ish mechanic/potter/handyman who is helping to renovate her house. It is the end of the 1970’s and Dorothea finds herself out of step with the cultural changes that are sweeping America (and elsewhere in the world) and she finds herself struggling to connect with Jamie. Moreover, she is concerned that she can’t teach him ‘how to be man’ in a society that is far removed from the Depression-era America of her youth, a new world in which punk rock and skateboarding have emerged as the totems of youth culture. “They know they’re no good, right”, she asks Abbie when she happens upon her playing a Black Flag record, in response to which Abbie explains that ‘being good’ isn’t really the point because it’s all about energy and attitude, rather than ability.
For reasons that Dorothea finds difficult to articulate, she enlists Abbie and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s seriously depressed childhood friend who sneaks into his room every night to sleep beside him, to help steer her son in the right direction by sharing their life experiences. Neither Abbie nor Julie really understand what Dorothea wants them to do exactly, or how it might help Jamie, but they give it a crack. Abbie takes Jamie to punk clubs and provides him with feminist literature, to which he takes a liking, resulting in one of several very funny moments when he gets into a fight with another boy over the importance of clitoral stimulation in the female orgasm. Almost as amusing is Dorothea’s reaction when she asks him what the fight was about. Julie’s efforts are somewhat more problematic because Jamie is attracted to her beyond the platonic nature of their friendship but she refuses to take the relationship further for reasons that are never explicitly stated but clearly stem from the fact that Jamie is a ‘safe place’ for her; providing relief from her depression and the sexual promiscuity that results from her low sense of self-worth. Julie is a hard character to like, but you do develop an understanding of just how important her time spent with Jamie is and why she doesn’t want to risk that by taking their relationship further.
Mills draws great humour from the honesty he imbues throughout so much of the film, including a cringe-worthy sexual interlude that accurately reflects just how awkward such interactions can be, and a scene that some will find distasteful only as a result of cultural taboos that suggest menstruation is not a suitable topic for dinner table conversation (or discussion elsewhere for that matter). Mills has also avoided the Hollywood cliché that cancer is a tragedy that must be mined for maximum emotional mileage. Yes, Abbie is a survivor of cervical cancer and has to grapple with the possible implications of the illness – such as her ‘incompetent’ cervix – but there is a matter-of-factness about her attitude that is refreshing without diminishing the seriousness of such a diagnosis. Furthermore, it serves as a reminder that cervical cancer, whilst less common is younger women, is not necessarily confined to an older demographic.
The casting is impeccable and whilst Bening delivers a remarkable performance that is perhaps topped only by her turn as a very different type of mother in American Beauty, the support players are also terrific. Gerwig (Frances Ha, Maggie’s Plan) is always wonderful and Zumann is a great surprise as a teenager constructed as someone just as substantial as the older characters that inhabit his world. He is a source of support for all of the women in his life and when he tells Dorothea that “I want to be a good guy, you know?” you believe him. The characters are all ‘quirky’, but they always seem like real people and they are, collectively, a family of sorts. The plot is simple but the people are complex, which is refreshing because the opposite it too often the case. Accompanied by a soundtrack that spans 1940’s jazz to Talking Heads and the aforementioned Black Flag, 20th Century Women is a wonderfully warm portrait of a group of people at a very specific moment in time.