Running Time: 119 minutes
Actors: Annette Bening, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann
There are so many good lines in “Twentieth Century Women” and so much wisdom and information imparted that I can heartily recommend the movie on that basis alone. I’m going to share some of that wisdom with you momentarily.
Add to that the fact that Annette Bening turns in another great performance (she was Golden Globe nominated) and that the film has actually put titles of some of the better books on feminism and other idealistic pursuits onscreen at key moments, and it can certainly be considered educational. What books and films are cited? “Forever”, 1975, Judy Blume. “The Road Less Traveled”, 1978, Scott Peck. “The Politics of Orgasm,” 1970, Susan Lydon. Another by Zoe Moss about the aging woman, written in 1970, which professes that“It hurts to be old and obsolete and alone.” “A Crisis of Confidence” by Jimmy Carter. A film by Koyaanisqatsi, 1982, by Godfrey Reggie and Philip Glass. (onscreen, the dates for the film are listed as 1971-1975).
It’s also a very, very funny film. Who would expect that—right?
As mentioned above, Bening gives a great performance, but so does the young boy who plays her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), whom she often refers to as “Kid.”
Director/Writer Mike Mills hasn’t made a big movie for 6 years, but the movie he made 6 years ago, “Beginners,” won Christopher Plummer the Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for his role as an elderly widower who comes out to his adult son (Ewan McGregor) as gay at the advanced age of 75.
Mills, who has worked extensively in graphic design and has won many film awards prior to this film, is going to be around for a while, and he’s going to be doing good work, judging by this film. This effort made me think of Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic,” which was Ross’ maiden voyage into directing and was honored this year at Cannes. (It also was up for the Best Picture of the Year at the SAG awards, but did not win.)
Mills admits that “Beginners” was autobiographical in nature, and so is “20th Century Women.” Said Mills on IMDB: “Making a movie is so hard, you’d better make movies about something you really know about. And even more, it’s really good to make movies about things you need to figure out for yourself, so you’re driven the whole way through. It’s going to make things more crucial for you.”
The mother in this film is a woman who had a son in 1964 when she was 40. It is now 15 years later, and Jamie’s mother (Annette Bening) is trying to raise her son alone in 1979 California. She is worried about the lack of a father figure, but feels that she can draw strength and support from those close to her in the film and close to Jamie.
Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) the pivotal character in the film, smokes Salems non-stop, wears Birkenstocks, drives a Volkswagon (Mills once did graphic design for the brand) and would have qualified as a bona fide hippy if her birth year weren’t 1924. She’s a bit too old for the communes of Berkeley (Mills, who was born in 1966, grew up in Berkeley), but Dorothea’s also young at heart. She works as a draftsman, the first woman to be hired by the Continental Can drafting department. Probably not coincidentally, Mike Mills’ mother worked as a draftsman.
The film opens with the car Dorothea and Jamie had left in a parking lot, a Ford Galaxy, ablaze.
Dorothea decides that the roomers in the large, old house she is renovating and one of Jamie’s friends from school (Elle Fanning as Julie, daughter of a therapist) can assist her in raising her son. Those two friends are the man working on her house, William (Billy Crudup) and a young woman fleeing from her previous life and parent and dealing with the fact that she may be infertile due to DES prescribed her mother in Santa Barbara while her mother was pregnant with her, Abigail “Abby” Porter.
Jamie asks his mother “Why are you fine being sad and alone?” He also chides Mom about her non-stop smoking. She responds, “When I started, they weren’t bad for you. They were just stylish—edgy.”
I’m a woman who had a son born in the sixties and, twenty years later, had a second child at 42. I could relate to mothering a son born in 1964 (although my son was born in 1968) and I could relate to being considered a fossil by the time my daughter was born, twenty years later. Dorothea’s response about cigarettes caused me to nod my head knowingly. I think I was the only one of my high school clique who didn’t take up smoking with a vengeance (“Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should!”) and most of them are still smoking up a storm today (and quite defiantly, I might add.)
Whenever Jamie finds his mother’s advice inconvenient, he’ll say, to others, “Don’t worry about her. She’s from the Depression.” I said exactly the same thing about my parents, who were considered old when they had me at 38 and 43 and actually were “from the Depression.” Nobody else had old parents but me. My parents didn’t “get” the music of my generation and neither does Dorothea, although she makes several efforts, with the help of the young Abby, to try to learn the difference between The Talking Heads and Black Flag. Her young teacher Abbie tells her that “pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.” Dorothea attempting to meditate with Billy Crudup is a hilarious scene.
Dorothea has some ironic and interesting observations about life and men. To wit:
“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.”
“Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.”
“Men always feel like they have to fix things for women or they’re not doing anything.”
“Being strong is the most important quality. It gives you durability versus the other emotions.”
“Men don’t want to be contradicted. They just want to live in their fantasylands.”
“Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know that it’s not going to be anything like that.”
“I just picked the best solution at the time.”
To her young friend Abby, Dorothea says, of young Jamie: “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”
The human situations in this movie are so real and portrayed so touchingly and realistically that patrons in the audience, including my husband (who didn’t want to go, but we had missed the start time of “Gold”) were laughing out loud. I can’t tell you the set-up for the best laugh of the movie without ruining it, but just know that it involves a fist fight that Jamie is involved in and why he comes home with bruises and a black eye.
Some people do not want to be given the complete backstory of a character, including his date of death. They like endings where they can read into it whatever they want and muse on the probable denouement. I’m not that person. I liked the way Mills chose to give us more information than I’ve ever had given me about every single character in a film, including where they end up after the film has ended.
If you ever watched the television show “Six Feet Under,” which completed its run by giving you the dates of death of every single major character, you’ll get the idea. You’ll either hate this technique, or, if you’re me, you’ll love it. Interestingly enough (no coincidences here), Mike Mills’ real-life mother died of lung cancer from smoking in 1999 and so does Dorothea Fields, the onscreen version of Mom.
The line in the film that sums it up is this: “I will try to explain to my son what his own grandmother was like, but it will be impossible.”
It’s that kind of movie, about a very unusual and quirky set of characters. It gives rise to a line in the film describing one of them: “How did you get to be this person that you are? You’re so unusual.”
I loved the movie and would highly recommend it. It comes out in Blu-Ray, DVD and digital HD on March 28th.