Sex, some, though more awkwardness and regrets than action. Not much in the way of drugs; just some beer, oh, and lots of cigarettes; it has several points to make about cigarettes, actually. Rock ’n’ roll, definitely: an ongoing battle between punk and “art fag” music (think: Talking Heads).
Plenty of talk about women’s orgasms, which — hey! — 20th Century Women reminds us does not automatically fall under the Sex heading the way it does for men. And a scene around a dinner table in which menstruation and painful virginity-losing is discussed, and everyone else gets uncomfortable. Ah, the glory of women making men — and sometimes other women — uncomfortable by talking about the realities of their lives! That’s 20th Century Women in its poignant, hilarious nutshell.
Dorothea (Annette Bening: Danny Collins, Girl Most Likely) lives in 1979 Santa Barbara, California, in an old Victorian house that is being torn apart in an attempt to put it back together again in a better way. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling of the big central hall, a wound at the intersection of yesterday’s character molding and tomorrow’s fresh paint. That is Dorothea, too. Fiftysomething, she had her son, Jamie (up-and-comer Lucas Jade Zumann: Sinister 2), when she was in her 40s, and while she’s a hip divorcée with shades of bohemia about her, she’s also a product of her childhood: “She’s from the Depression,” 15-year-old Jamie says with bittersweet resignation, as if that explains her odd attitudes about how people need to stick together and help one another out when everyone else at the moment is into hedonism and individualistic self-expression. Jamie’s a bit annoyed that his mother has chosen to enlist their lodger, punk art photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig: Mistress America, Frances Ha), and their morose neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning: Live by Night, Trumbo) — with whom Jamie is desperately and hopelessly in love — as assistants in turning Jamie into a “good man,” into a feminist man who knows how to be around women and be their friends.
This will somewhat backfire on Dorothea, because she’s that hole in the ceiling: it’s easier to see the past than the future, though the dim outline is taking shape and she’s not sure she likes all of it. (You cannot control the future of the world like you can control the future of the color that goes on that wall over there.) Bening, who has never been finer or more on fire with vitality and passion, whips Dorothea into one of the most pensively delightful people you will ever meet onscreen (actually, that’s true of all the characters here), charting a steadfast path through the incertitude of, you know, everything. This life thing. Writer-director Mike Mills — with his third feature, after the wonderful Thumbsucker and Beginners — has spun a semiautobiographical ode to the women of his childhood into a melancholy ode to the unavoidability of living in the now and navigating it as best you can even as it slips away around you.
It’s like this: 20th Century Women may be taking place in 1979, but there is nothing nostalgic about it. No one is looking back from the present here… though there are a few glimpses from 1979 forward, one of the smartest and wisest things in a script full of smart, wise things. (The script is Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay.) The film stays rooted in this very moment (even though this moment was long ago), when the world was changing for women, when women at all stages of their lives grabbed the new opportunities that were opening up, when the men were forced to make some changes too. (There’s also another lodger, William, a sort of pleasant layabout jack-of-all-arts; he’s kind of doing the renovations on the house. Billy Crudup [Spotlight, Blood Ties] makes him seem as if he is content to get washed along with the tsunami of feminism in this new world.)
Everything is changing… like it always is. Dorothea and Abbie and Julie (and Jamie and William) are at the edge of a new world, like everyone always is. The relentless nowness of the charming confusions of this ad hoc family are a sort of relief: oh, thank god, everyone else is screwed up too, and they always were. They have the same “raw energy” of unrealistic expectations that Abbie applies to punk rock musicians she loves: a passion for music cannot save them from their lack of talent, and that frustration is expressed in their ear-splitting songs. Sometimes those expectations are unrealistically low and sad, like poor Julie’s ideas about what sex means for her and her female friends. Those brief glimpses forward, to the future, may not all be wholly positive, but unrealistic expectations are still the fuel that charges our path forward. 20th Century Women is not a movie you walk out of feeling like you’re dancing on air. It’s an even rarer sort of movie than that: it charges you up with its raw energy built on the hope that keeps us fumbling through life.