Free spirited single mother, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening, is trying to raise her teenage son, Jamie, played by Lucas Jade Zumann. It is 1979 in Southern California and Dorothea runs a boarding house. Because of Dorothea’s warm personality, her tenants are drawn into the lives of her and Jamie and they form an impromptu family. Dorothea had Jamie late in life so the generation gap is their case is huge. Like any teenager, Jamie is becoming sullen and disobedient. This distresses his mother who hates to see him grow apart from her.
At first she tries to get her male tenant, William, played by Billy Crudup, to serve as a role model for Jamie. But William, who likes working with his hands, and Jamie, who’s more thoughtful, don’t really connect. So when that fails Dorothea asks Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, her female tenant, and Julie, played by Elle Fanning, Jamie’s best friend, to try and talk to him about his life.
But these two have their own trials. Abbie is going through a cancer scare and Julie has severe self-esteem issues that result in her sleeping around with multiple partners that do not include Jamie to his great frustration, even though she comes over most nights and sleeps in his bed. And what Jamie really wants is to understand his mother just as she wants to understand him.
First of all let me say that the movie is too long. It drags in several places and they could have used more time in the editing suite to get it down to an hour and a half. It has one of those false endings where it feels like the story has wrapped up but the movie goes on for another twenty minutes. Plus great amounts of exposition is delivered through narration by Jamie, Dorothea and later the other characters. So the film could have been a lot longer. In my view narration adds a certain pretension to a film. “This is a story worth commenting on.” 20th Century Women is about a teenage boy maturing a little bit and his mother not being able to handle it, hardly the stuff of epics.
But there’s a lot in this film that’s intriguing. Writer/Director Mike Mills has created a troupe of interesting and quirky characters and put them in bizarre situations. Despite the pacing problems the script has some very good dialog. It also has a real sense of the passage of time. The main plot takes place in the space of a few days but everything that happens is predicated on how the pasts of these characters have shaped them. That’s true in any story but Mills really manages to emphasize the point.
20th Century Women is about people trying to understand each other. One generation desperate to learn about another and a boy trying to understand girls. Jamie tries to get his mother to talk about what she’s going through. He wants to know about why she never tried to remarry and what she originally saw in his father. She tries to listen to Talking Heads and Black Flag, hoping that will give her insight into what Jamie is thinking. This movie has a great soundtrack by the way.
In short this movie has some wonderful moments and a few good laughs. It is also messy, sad and confusing. Sort of like life.