Director Mike Mills (Beginners) offers us a family drama where time and culture are just as important as the magnetic characters who move there. 20th century women takes place in Santa Barbara at the approach of the 80s. Things change, and this is precisely what scares Dorothea (Annette Bening). She smokes more than she should, and good luck finding her a man because she doesn’t have one. She wears her divorce as a badge of honor. Being “traditional” was never really her thing anyway. Her only child, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), knows this all too well.
His mother became a pilot and an engineer, and has now converted her house into a boarding house which could be under construction forever. Jamie is growing up in front of Dorothea and coming to terms with this is going to be extremely difficult for her. So, why not push him towards other women to try to decipher what is going on in his son’s head? These two lucky young women are Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s cuddly pal and nothing else, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an introspective art photographer who lives upstairs. They must show him how to be a respectful, intelligent, caring and creative young man. Dorothea is counting on their advice because that might not be what he needs.
As far as a story goes, it’s as good as it gets. Unless you include the handsome handyman (Billy Crudup (Editor’s Note: ALWAYS for some Billy Crudup)) being the only guy in the house, which makes it a product of choice for residents. But these decisive and decisive scenes do not exist. There is no “a-ha!” Moments here. To some extent, the lack of luster 20th century women causes him to lose his emotional weight. We are even told how everyone’s life goes, with some being less effective than others. But, for Mills, it’s the little moments that make the trip worth it.
Gerwig is sensational as a cancer survivor turned into an aggressive feminist. She also loves rock. The role fits him well, wearing it with absolute confidence. The blossoming puppy love between Jamie and Julie is cute. Yet one would have to be foolish not to recognize Bening as the anchor of the dysfunction in 20th century women.
Bening is remarkable as a woman and mother battling the hands of time, and it’s a battle she won’t win. She wants to deeply understand her son while letting go of the feeling of being invisible in her life. With every brash remark and her relentless cynicism, Dorothea is caught in the midst of a changing climate that she has not prepared for. It is therefore normal that his voice takes us on a journey into the past, confronting the memories that have made up the fabric of their lives.
Mills cherishes the pieces more than the puzzle she creates when put together. 20th century women observes, comments and understands his place as the story sweeps them away. The movie seems to just sit quietly in a corner, by no means matching the enthusiasm Bening brings to his brown Birkenstocks.
Brandon Vick is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association, resident film critic of the SoBros Network and star of Vick’s Flicks podcast. Follow him on twitter @SirBrandonV and be sure to search #VicksFlicks for all of his latest movie reviews.