Twentieth Century Women a film by Mike Mills. With Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann. ****1/2
When I first heard the title of this movie, I thought, what the hell is a twentieth century woman? How is she different from a twenty-first century woman? But now that I’ve seen it, I think the title is too broad. It should be 1979 Women. Or at least Late Seventies Women. This movie absolutely nails the female gender at a certain period of time.
I would also like to propose a new meaning for the term “Adult Film.” Until recently it has referred to porn flicks. But I would like to use it to refer to a movie about adults, or near-adults, that doesn’t have any bank robberies in it, or monsters, or weird kids with supernatural powers, or people who have come back from the dead, or robots, or time travelers, or space age gadgets. Just human beings living their lives in the world. It’s such a relief to see a movie like this. I could have watched it for hours.
Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a fifteen year old kid who lives in a weird house with a weird mom. Dorothea (Annette Bening) has a perfectly good job as a draftsman (or draftsperson, as I’m sure they would have said back then) in Santa Barbara, but for some reason has chosen to move into an ancient house that is in a perpetual state of renovation and to take in boarders, one of whom, William (Billy Crudup) is the renovator, the other of whom, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is an artist who hasn’t discovered her métier, but is in there pitching. A fourth occupant of the house—unbeknownst to most of the others—is Julie (Elle Fanning), who is big friend with Jamie and often comes to sleep with him, but doesn’t have sex with him, because they’re such good friends that she feels too close (a problem Jamie, or any other fifteen year old boy, would not have). Those are the characters, and that’s the movie. It revolves around them, and stays pretty close to home.
It goes without saying that everybody here—even the guys, especially after Abbie starts to educate Jamie—is a fierce feminist; Abbie gives Jamie copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful, and he reads them enthusiastically. Dorothea has had various men friends after her husband left but none of them stuck. Abbie is estranged from her parents, had a scary encounter with a very early case of cervical cancer, but is a survivor and a battler. Julie’s mother is a shrink, and she forces her daughter to be in her therapy groups, so she screws around some, consumes some banned substances, and prefers to sleep at Jamie’s place. William, who can fix anything—including the house, apparently, if he’s given enough time—is the quintessential seventies man, moving where the wind takes him, doing whatever work he can find, sleeping with every woman he can get his hands on. He even comes on to Dorothea. When he tries to teach her meditation—apparently the reason for his incredible calm, if it isn’t the post-coital bliss—she tries to do it, but needs a cigarette to continue.
That’s the only thing about the movie that bothers me. Dorothea smokes, in almost every scene. It will eventually kill her, as a flash forward tells us. We get mini-biographies of all the characters, including their pasts and futures. I liked that. But the present action stays relentlessly in 1979, that pivotal and vastly important year.
Dorothea decides that, because there’s no man around, she needs help raising Jamie, and enlists Julie and Abbie in the effort. (William is so engaged in his fix-it projects that he’s boring to a teenage kid). Ten years later Robert Bly would have told her what Julie hints at. “Doesn’t it take a man to raise a man?”
“I don’t think so,” Dorothea says, establishing herself as post-feminist and pre-men’s movement. So she gets these women to help.
Abbie is actually great, a kind of much-older sister type. She gives him those feminist classics, takes him out to a bar (illegally), coaches him on pickup lines, gives him a chance to kiss an older woman (not her, but a friend). Julie isn’t as much help because she has her own issues (at one point she’s worried that she’s pregnant; she also confesses that she doesn’t enjoy about half of her sexual encounters, which sounds bad, except that—as she points out—that means she does like half of them). At one point—when Abbie discovers them in bed together—she tells Jamie he’s got to insist that Julie have sex with him; she’s dissing him by sleeping with him and not doing it. I actually didn’t agree. I thought Julie was perfectly upfront about things, though she was driving Jamie batty. And she’s adorable, the most beautiful sixteen-year-old buddy a guy could have. She has one long conversation with Dorothea—both of them smoking cigarettes—that is one of the real gems of the movie, which in a way is just one conversation after another.
I felt for Dorothea. She reminded me of my sister, coming from that generation that was supposed to live the old way—staying married, staying home and raising the children, smoking Salems—but is trying to live the new way, going out to work, being casual about sex, being defiant about being a single mother but trying to raise Jamie well. She lives in the age of punk rock but prefers Rudy Vallee (this song in particular), would rather dance in the old way, where you touch each other and look at each other. She is her own woman, and takes shit from nobody, not Abbie (she doesn’t appreciate her dinner table conversation about menstruation), or Julie (just because her mother’s a shrink, she has no right to regard Dorothea as “the problem” in Jamie’s life), or William (if he makes a pass at somebody, he should mean something by it, not just want to get laid). She won’t even take shit from her own son, when he wants her to be happier and move fulfilled. She’s as happy and fulfilled as she can be. She’s doing her best.
Jamie is absolutely great (and Zumann is marvelous in the role). In what even Dorothea realizes is a difficult moment for men, he walks the tightrope, being a skateboarder but not getting drunk or stoned, being a great friend to Julie while obviously wanting to sleep with her, wanting to have sex with girls but being completely willing to stimulate their clitorises so they’ll have orgasms, putting up with his often looney mother (in the first scene of the movie, their old car catches on fire, and, as he points out to her, it’s a little unusual in that circumstance to invite the fireman back to dinner, to your birthday celebration in fact). Being a teenager is difficult for everyone, but this guy’s walking through a minefield.
I think that from an aesthetic standpoint some scenes went on too long (though I was sitting there loving them. I loved the whole movie). The whole situation of parents with their children in this movie was weird, and the movie itself was very seventies California. People in Minnesota might regard this as science fiction (I live twenty minutes from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so it seemed perfectly normal to me). I appreciated the eccentric script, the whimsical and excellent direction, superb performances by every actor. It’s not a Must See like Moonlight. It’s a Do Yourself a Favor and See Something Good. Go Back to an Earlier Simpler Time, when the comparatively young President was lecturing the electorate as if they were his Sunday School class (he actually taught one). He was right. Though he lost the next election.
Sometimes the wrong person wins, as we know.
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