A centerpiece film premiering at the New York Film Festival this year is Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women, featuring performances by Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning as three different generations of women existing in close proximity in a ramshackle bohemian house. It’s a shame, then, that the movie gathers such powerful actresses and builds compelling female characters only to relegate them to supporting a standard male coming-of-age narrative.
The year is 1979 and single mother Dorothea Fields (Bening) is living in a slightly rundown house in Santa Barbara with her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). A professional photographer and David Bowie-aficionado Abbie (Gerwig), and William, a carpenter working on house repairs, also live and pay rent in this makeshift family abode.
Jamie’s friend and confidante Julie (Fanning) spends more time at the house than she does at her own, regularly sneaking into Jamie’s room to sleep with him (literally – they only sleep, and this becomes very important as time goes on). When Jamie almost dies after playing a “fainting game” with some friends, Dorothea worries that she’s unable to connect to her son, and that, in the absence of a father figure, he’ll grow into a man without proper guidance. So, she enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help “raise” Jamie, giving him needed advice about life, women, and becoming a man. But these women have their own hang-ups, and soon things become more confusing for Jamie than they were before.
It is to the actresses’ credit that they give potentially one-dimensional characters a proper degree of depth here. Annette Bening is marvelous as Dorothea, who combines a free-spirited nature with occasional lapses into conservatism. She earnestly wants to understand her son and the two young women, and even gets them to take her to a punk club so that she can be a part of their world.
Her irreverent attitude towards life conceals a woman who has tried to cordon herself off from the world and from her own child, and thus avoid some of the less palatable questions about her own choices. She is warm and likable, but the film never idealizes her, allowing her space to develop as a human being and not just as a mother trope. As she dances to Talking Heads with William, argues that smoking isn’t bad for her because of when she was born, and invites every person she meets to dinner, she becomes a multi-faceted woman. She’s not always able to connect, not always certain about her place in the changing world of the late-70s, but trying to muddle her way through as best she can.
“Muddling through” is the phrase to describe each of the women, in fact, all of whom grapple with the meaning of womanhood and personhood in a world that changes those meanings periodically. Gerwig turns in a seminal performance as Abbie, who looks for her meaning in photography and her love of punk, externalizing her feminism to the degree that she ends up giving Jamie Our Bodies, Our Selves and Sisterhood is Powerful in order to inaugurate him into the needs and strictures of female lives.
Meanwhile, the most confused and problematic character is Elle Fanning’s Julie, a girl who uses her sexuality to disconnect from other people and rebel against her therapist mother while never quite able to become a rebel in the most meaningful sense. She’s as confused as Jamie, in her own way, finding empty meaning in promiscuity, unable to physically connect with the person to whom she’s actually closest. We learn the backstories and the eventual futures of these characters, both in their own voices and from Jamie—the connection that unites them into a meaningful whole.
With such a collection of remarkable characters from a trio of talented women, one wishes that they had been given a better story arc. Unfortunately, their characterizations are almost entirely subsumed in service to Jamie’s coming-of-age narrative, their functions, even as three-dimensional characters, to raise him into a “good man.” Most of their conversations involve men in some way – who they’ve had sex with, what to do about Jamie, what makes men “Men.” Women, in fact, seem to discuss very little aside from their past, present, and futures with men, their lives wrapped up in giving guidance and definition to men, or being defined by them.
In some ways, this is an honest narrative, especially the degree to which women are subordinated to male desires. Late in the story, Julie tells Jamie that he doesn’t want her, but wants his idea of her. The confusion is real and Jamie is not to blame: though he’s taken to heart much of the feminist literature that Abbie offers him, he’s also a teenage boy, muddling through his relationships with the women in his life as best he can, thrown off-kilter by his own needs and emotions as much as theirs.
But what the film does not try to question or examine is the degree to which these women are all defined through a male perspective, and via that male perspective have become only functions in his narrative. The film doesn’t find a conflict or criticism in this, that such interesting and dynamics characters should be so entirely robbed of their personhood at each turn, pushed back into a narrative that gives them the task – literally – of raising a teenage boy. His growth is their success or failure; his future depends on them. Women, it seems, are responsible for the creation of good men.
20th Century Women feels more like Jamie’s journal or a diary than a feature film. Scenes progress via the music and politics of the period, punctuated by stills depicting everything from the punk scene in L.A. to the Depression-era slums where Dorothea grew up. There is a tinge of romanticization that’s excusable – in many ways, this is a romantic film, after all – but becomes wearing whenever a scene is elided in favor of a little taste of nostalgia. The film doesn’t have a clear arc, and the various back-stories and ancillary narratives – again, especially of the female characters – are either not concluded, or perfunctory.
Without being particularly revolutionary or groundbreaking, 20th Century Women is still a gentle, enjoyable comedy, the sort of story that’s diverting without being revealing, with a strong cast to recommend it. But it is a standard coming-of-age narrative, more concerned with the growth of the boy than with the lives of the titular women. 20th Century Women is not a failure, but it’s certainly a disappointment.
20th Century Women relegates a set of extraordinary female characters to supporting players in a standard coming-of-age narrative. It's entertaining, but also disappointing.