In Marvelous “20th Century Women,” a Boy Becomes a Feminist

20th Century Women

20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

Halfway through 20th Century Women, I asked myself if the film would pass the Bechdel test, that (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek method of analyzing movies based on whether there are multiple female characters who talk about more than their relationships with men. Not even Alison Bechdel, herself, thinks we should evaluate works of art according to this sole criterion, but it can be helpful as a way to gain perspective on the many ways in which women are so often diminished on screen (and everywhere else). The new film from director Mike Mills (Beginners) has three strong female characters, yet each is defined in the story, at least initially, vis-à-vis her interaction with the teenage boy at the center of the narrative. Nevertheless, I would still call it a profoundly feminist movie, since it celebrates not only the achievements of these women, but also the boy’s appreciation of them as fully three-dimensional beings. His adolescent angst may drive the plot, but it’s the catalyst through which the women confront their own evolving lives.

As much celebration of Mills’ own mother as anything else, 20th Century Women is primarily a showcase for the wonderful Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) who plays Dorothea, born in 1924 (the story takes place in 1979) and divorced mother to 15-year-old Jamie (played by relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), whom she had when she was 40. They live in a ramshackle mansion in Santa Barbara, California, joined by tenants Abbie, a 24-year-old freelance photographer played by a pitch-perfect Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), and William, a 40-something handyman doing renovations on the place, played by an appealing Billy Crudup (Jackie), both of whom help give the place a friendly community vibe. Their makeshift family is completed by a neighborhood girl – two years older than Jamie – named Julie, played by the ever-talented Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon). After an accident sends Jamie to the hospital, Dorothea decides she may not be enough for him. She’s tried bringing William in as a strong male figure, but kind and sensitive as he is, there’s no chemistry there. So, instead, she asks Abbie and Julie to step in, proposing an arrangement where the three of them will, together, provide the support to Jamie that Dorothea feels he needs.

The experiment doesn’t go smoothly, but does provide many opportunities for gentle humor and reflection on the struggles of women – self-identified feminists and otherwise – at a crucial juncture in American history, just before the consumerism of the Reagan era took over the country’s ethos. We’re even treated to the final minute of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “Crisis of Confidence” speech to place us firmly in that era and its shifting socio-politico-cultural terrain. Indeed, time is of the very essence: peppered with stills and clips from throughout the last century, the movie is a meditation on both the passage of time and the varying speeds at which our lives go by, depending on the moment, as Mills manipulates the frame rate of interval scenes to accelerate the action. In addition, Dorothea, Abbie and Julie each represent a different stage of life, their birth dates given in clear title cards, and their biographies delivered in voiceover. Bening, Gerwig and Fanning work beautifully together, as they do with Zumon and Crudup. At times funny, at other times poignant, 20th Century Women is always engaging and rich in meaning, honoring both the women in its story and the actresses who play them.

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