'It's Always About the Mother'

20th Century Women
(USA, 118 min.)
Written and directed by Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann in 20th Century Women.
Elevation Pictures

“What about you?” asks Julie (Elle Fanning) to Dorothea (Annette Bening). “It’s always about the mother.”

“Ok. Jesus, uh… yeah,” replies Dorothea, dumbstruck, baffled, and caught slightly off guard.

This moment of psychoanalytic clarity between the teenage Julie and the middle-aged Dorothea comes about partway through 20th Century Women as the latter seeks out her son’s friend to understand the nature of their relationship. Women, the latest dramedy set in the offbeat world of Mike Mills (Beginners) puts the audience into the minds of four great, rich, and wonderful characters: Dorothea, her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Jamie’s friend Julie, and Dorothea’s lodger, Abbey (Greta Gerwig).

There are three women and one young man, and while much of the film uses Jamie’s perspective to better understand the women who raise him and shape his life, 20th Century Women smartly and affectionately brings it all back to Dorothea. Whereas too many films define female characters in relation to the men in the story, 20th Century Women defines the male character through his relationship to women. Jamie finds himself in a triangle with Dorothea firmly at the top. This film is all about the mother.

The mother prepares her son by enlisting Julie and Abbey to help teach Jamie how a boy should respect and understand women. This effort comes most naturally with Julie, as she is Jamie’s closest confidant in their strictly platonic sleepovers in which she tells about her kisses. Fanning gives another mature performance on the heels of The Neon Demon and there’s something both bold and sad about Julie’s need to share the details of her sex life with the virgin who is clearly head over heels in love with her. Part of the sexual revolution is learning to talk about what Dorothea’s generation didn’t talk about, and through Fanning, Julie is a mix of adolescent hunger and ripe intelligence. She’s read the books and is ready to test the field.

Abbey, meanwhile, is the Guinea Pig for much of the Women’s Studies 101 talk that helps Jamie to see a world of equals. Undergoing tests and treatment for cervical cancer, Abbey confronts the role of motherhood within the definition of femininity as she enlightens Jamie on theories of gender equality that more parents should teach their teens.

It helps that Mills gets someone as open and spunky as Greta Gerwig to play Abbey, since, like Bening, the actress knows how to convey a character’s unfamiliar territory. (There’s also a male lodger played by Billy Crudup, who provides a nice harmony to all the associations in the film, especially with Gerwig as Abbey exposes herself through her art.) Abbey awkwardly and caringly gets a feel for her maternal side as she shares her experience as a modern woman—independent, pink-haired, and potentially childless—with Jamie. What makes the performance one of Gerwig’s strongest is the bittersweet irony that lives within Abbey’s affection: she would probably have made a great mother and this is the only chance she might have. The scenes between Bening and Gerwig, particularly a punk bar jaunt in which Abbey tries to help Dorothea get laid in the bar scene, are among 20th Century Women’s best as the film shows a multigenerational exchange as both women get a sense of their time.

At the heart of Mills’s film is a question of how one person, any person, understands the time in which he or she lives. Through voiceover reflections, accelerated frame rates, and montages intercut with archival images, Mills situates these characters within a continuum: this story is one that passes from generation to generation as the relationship between parents and their children changes. Each character in 20th Century Women inevitably circles back to Dorothea despite her relationship with Jamie.

It’s no surprise that Annette Bening quietly sneaks up on the film and steals it. Bening gives one of her best performances as the thoroughly modern matriarch who insists one doesn’t need a man to raise a son. Like her turn in The Kids Are All Right, Bening’s coup as Dorothea is on one hand a great comedic performance and a downplayed dramatic feat on the other as a mother looking out for her family. She’s a great fit for Mills’s uncontrived and unfussy world: relaxed and ready to laugh, but also willing to explore herself in some of the film’s frequent moments of quiet introspection. Scenes of Bening smoking in pensive thought during 20th Century Women belong on any clip reel of the year’s cinematic highlights.

A guardedness also underlies many of Dorothea’s interactions with the younger Julie and Abbey when it comes to raising Jamie.  Dorothea is a complex, flawed, and down to earth woman caught in a transition period between conservatism and second wave feminism. Like her boy experiencing puberty, Dorothea is in an awkward time of change, and Bening’s performance thoroughly embraces the mother’s sincere effort to understand the time in which she and her son come of age. Too old for the sexual revolution (she tries the punk scene for about five minutes) and too young to be cranky about the golden days, Dorothea does what any great mother would do: She embraces the possibilities of the future and does everything in her might to prepare her child for the wild.  It’s the kind of performance and character, which, hopefully, helps audiences understand and appreciate their moms even more.

20th Century Women opens in Toronto January 13th at the Varsity and opens on Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Halifax, Ottawa on January 20th.