It feels like this year in general, and this time of year in particular, is the right moment to ask ourselves a question about what constitutes a family. I would argue—as I believe I have previously—that family isn’t simply something defined by genetics and the law, that one can make their own family. Sure, that may be a non-traditional view, but non-traditional doesn’t mean wrong.
Writer/director Mike Mills appears to take the same stance with his new work, “20th Century Women.” The movie looks at one non-traditional family in California in 1979, with Annette Bening offering a brilliant portrayal of the matriarch at the family’s core.
Sitting in the center of the film’s family is Dorothea (Bening). She has a son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and rents out rooms in her house to artist, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and mechanic, William (Billy Crudup). Along with Jamie’s friend and would-be (for him, not her) girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning), they are most definitely a single, although not homogeneous, unit. The relationship, even with the renters, is far less about money—Dorothea is very happy to let the rent slide—than about forming a bond and being there for one another. Dorothea, in fact, asks Abbie and Julie to help raise Jamie as his father is not around (Julie, for what it’s worth, is two years Jamie’s senior).
Dorothea’s plan also doesn’t go brilliantly. Abbie and Julie have very different ideas about what Jamie needs to know when it comes to being an adult than both each other and than Dorothea. The whole thing, naturally, both embarrasses and confuses Jamie, particularly when it comes to learning about things like menstruation. Although, his embarrassment, and that of other people at the dinner during which it comes up, is one of the best scenes in the film.
The three women at the center of this movie all offer great performances, particularly, as noted, Bening. She is entirely winning as a strong but struggling woman, someone who grew up during the depression, knows the value of hard work, and doesn’t want to complain about her life in front of anyone. This last, of course, makes it somewhat difficult for Jamie to get a handle on her and frustrates him immensely. It is one of their big sources of conflict.
What is most disturbing about Mills’ film is its insistence on having Jamie, not Dorothea, at its core. She is the center of the family, but the movie is regularly told from his point of view. “20th Century Women,” perhaps, is best thought of as an atom, with Jamie at the nucleus and Abbie, Julie, Dorothea, and even William as the electrons spinning around that nucleus. For a movie that is, or purports to be (as the synopsis states), “a poignant love letter to the people who raise us,” viewing so much of what takes place through Jamie’s eyes is an interesting, slightly off-putting, choice. One can’t quite escape the sense that as strong as the female characters are, and as diverse as they are, and as intelligent as they are, they are still centered around a guy.
Some of this is lessened by a closing voiceover coming from multiple points of view, with several of the characters revealing what happens to them after the movie proper ends. Especially when delivered by the women, this voiceover is wonderful and heartfelt and, unfortunately, different than what came before.
Part of the message of the movie is that this non-traditional group can still raise a good child, and that does come through loud and clear. However, the voiceovers are so wonderful and so pure that it is impossible to watch “20th Century Women” and not want those specific voices to have been a much larger part in the telling of the tale.
photo credit: A24