20th Century Women (M). Director: Mike Mills. Starring: Annette Benning, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann. 137 minutes
The title is somewhat of a sleight-of-hand for a film that is centrally about a teenage boy. Fifteen-year-old Jamie (Zumann) provides a semi-autobiographical avatar for filmmaker Mills to explore, through fiction, the formative influence of the women who contributed to his upbringing in the late 1970s. First among the women in Jamie's life is his mother Dorothea (Benning), a free-spirited divorcee, whose decidedly liberal parenting style is also marked by an almost manic love and concern for her son.
When Jamie nearly dies following some risky schoolyard hijinks, Dorothea begins to doubt her ability to raise him alone. Desperate to ensure he grow up to be a decent man, she conscripts her tenant, photographer Abbie (Gerwig), and Jamie's best friend, Julie (Fanning), to pitch in. The two women agree grudgingly; both are navigating their own emotional and physical trials, and can perhaps see better than Dorothea the good job she has done to date with raising the manifestly mature and sensitive Jamie.
Abbie is being treated for cervical cancer, which, in an effective bit of historical verisimilitude, is revealed to be a result of her mother's use of DES, a known side effect of the by-then banned fertility drug. Still she takes Jamie under her wing, introducing him to the paired liberating movements of punk rock and second-wave feminism. Both lead to illuminating experiences for Jamie, from his first rock concert, use of alcohol, and kiss, to being beaten for casting aspersions on a peer's grasp of female sexual anatomy.
Jamie's relationship with Julie on the other hand provides a difficult counterpoint to his engagement with Abbie's feminist texts. Julie is the only one of the women not drawn from Mills' own experiences, and as a result is the most thinly conceived, though Fanning brings a quiet charisma to the role, and the character serves a thematic purpose. She often sleeps in Jamie's bed, but despite his gentle urging, refuses to have sex with him. For her, sex and intimacy are immiscible, and so sex would necessarily ruin their friendship.
This frustrates Jamie, whose peevish concern over his friend's promiscuity with other men seems largely possessive in nature; his theoretical understanding of women's agency falling down in the face of adolescent hormones. Nonetheless Julie, as one of Dorothea's reluctant anointed, tries to help Jamie navigate these feelings, while also staunchly maintaining the boundaries of her own personhood. Tacitly, the film indicts the generally likeable Jamie for requiring her to do so.
"Dorothea's friendship with another tenant borders on romantic, but she does not need or desperately want a man in order to flourish."
All of these events and conversations revolve ultimately around Jamie's relationship with Dorothea. As a single mother and ageing divorcee she is free-spirited and independent, but also vulnerable and fragile. Dorothea's friendship with another tenant, mechanic and former hippie William (Crudup) borders on romantic, but she does not need or desperately want a man in order to flourish. The brilliant Benning embodies both the comic and tragic dimensions of the character.
Dorothea seems to view Abbie and Julie as both allies and secret rivals in the work of raising Jamie. Her attempts to appreciate Abbie and Jamie's music is admirable but ill-fated. When Jamie reads to Dorothea a passage from one of Abbie's books, about the lived experience of social obsolescence of older women, she becomes enraged. It maybe hits too close to home, but at the same time, who is this young man to think he 'gets' her because of something he read in a book? And who is Abbie to give him such ideas?
The complexities of character and theme unwind via a sensitive script and performances that are by turns hilarious and emotionally resonant. Even at its funniest, 20th Century Women has an elegiac quality; various characters narrate their own and others' stories, their voices floating outside of time, projecting forward to the end of the century and beyond. As if these lives, relationships and the society they inhabit pivot around these few vital months, that might change everything or nothing.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.