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Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is actually about a boy. Granted, the 15-year-old kid is surrounded—or smothered—by three females of varying sanities: Julie, his childhood friend; Abbie, a photographer who rents a room in his home; and lastly Dorothea, his single mother, who calls upon the other two to help raise him. It’s 1979 Santa Barbara, and Mom is about as California as they come.
Except when she isn’t. Annette Bening, in perhaps her most unlikeable role, plays Dorothea, the ruler of this peculiar roost. Long divorced, she doesn’t feel capable of parenting Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone, even though he seems as well-adjusted as any other teen boy. Dorothea first tries to foist him upon her other tenant, a handyman named William (Billy Crudup), but Jamie finds him boring. So she turns to Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to “make him a good man.” (“What does that even mean these days?” she reflexively asks.) The two are as baffled as the audience will be, and a touch resentful. “I’m his friend,” Julie says. “I don’t want to be his mom.”
From the very beginning, 20th Century Women is busting with psychobabble. Dorothea is especially full of pseudo-insightful one-liners such as “Wondering if you’re happy is just a great shortcut to being depressed.” Abbie, who introduces Jamie to punk, uses words such as “disempowering” and tells Jamie to say “Age is a bourgeois concept” when hitting on older women. And though Julie is the most grounded of the three, her response when Jamie says he’s in love with her is, “But it’s just (with) your version of me. It’s not me,” whatever the fuck that means.
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Feminism is a big theme here, with Abbie being its primary source. She gives Jamie the book Our Bodies, Ourselves, among other female-centered literature, at least until Dorothea gets angry about it. “Do you know that you actually don’t know what you’re doing with him?” she asks. Uh, probably, which is why his own mother maybe shouldn’t have outsourced her responsibility. Instead, all Dorothea seems to do is smoke and look bewildered. Sometimes she’s bohemian and other times old-fashioned. Some may call her character complex; I call it inconsistent.
Mills (Beginners), who also wrote the screenplay, throws around the word “interesting” to an infuriating degree, which is partly why Dorothea is so difficult to warm to. When William, for example, plays her a punk record—she must, after all, understand why her son likes what he likes—she asks him to interpret the speed-of-sound lyrics and then says, “Is that interesting?” (Really: Would that be the first question that any person in the real world would ask?). Abbie speaks of punk’s interesting dynamic and tells Jamie he must get out of Santa Barbara if he wants to lead an interesting life. If you drank every time the word is uttered, you’d be sloshed by the time the credits roll.
The director’s bigger misstep, however, is attempting to take on seemingly every aspect of human existence. Obviously, there are women’s issues: fertility, the introduction of home pregnancy tests, the key to sexual pleasure, and, in one particularly uncomfortable dinner scene, menstruation. But Mills also covers loneliness, life expectations, the impending internet, fear of commitment, Y2K, illness—the list goes on.
Often during Dorothea’s voiceovers, he punctuates the story with random photos, such as different bands or kids dancing. The result is a film that alternates between universality and navel-gazing, with the latter turned irritating and the former too superficial. With a tighter focus and a less moony mom, 20th Century Women might have been, well, interesting.
20th Century Women opens today at Landmark Bethesda Row, Landmark E Street Cinema, and the Angelika Film Center.