Director Mike Mills 3rd feature effort, “20th Century Women,” continues his pattern (after “Thumbsucker” and “Beginners) of taking on strange topics with reckless abandon. In this tale, which takes place in 1979 California, Dorothea (Annette Bening, which got her a Golden Globe nod) is an aging single mother who tries to avoid any kind of social life by putting her energies into her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and the home she is remodeling with one of her boarders, William (Billy Crudup). She also rents a room out to Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young adult woman who is dealing with very personal health issues. As Jamie starts to deal with the true thick of being a teenager like finding his identity, Dorothea looks to Abbie and Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning) to help him get through it all. Normally, this would seem like a foolproof plan except for the fact that Abbie is a bit too much of a free spirit for Dorothea as she exposes Jamie to a deeper side of the emerging punk rock scene and feminist ideals that Dorothea thinks he may not be ready for. There is also the issue that Jamie is feeling that first true crush on Julie, who sleeps in his bed more often than not without wanting anything else but his friendship and nothing remotely more.
What stands out for me about this film is its honest, raw, and wonderful storytelling. As a child of a single mother myself, I found a lot of common ground with Jamie, who Zumann plays with a reality that anyone of Generation X will truly be able to identify with. Bening truly earns the Globe nomination with her portrayal of a woman who has so much going on in her life but takes it all simply as it comes without much forethought. She truly sees a lot of herself in Abbie, but she also has to learn some of the lessons of who she was at that age (and even some of the sass that she still carries) the hard way, including the nature of both of their associations with William (Crudup… Do I need to say more?). Gerwig (whose fan club I am NOT a member of) really brings a gravity to Abbie that as her story unfolds really sold me on the character, and paired up with Fanning, shows a balance within the characters that makes the original plan sensible until the ideals all collide in a climax that is both satisfying and emotional at the same time.
While “20th Century Women” is a film that can be seen as a snapshot in time, it really should be seen as a universal story of the relationship between parent and child, childhood friend to crush, mentor to mentee, and even friend to friend. I truly hope that this film gets more of the respect that it deserves on multiple levels, especially since the film itself got nominated for a Golden Globe as well.