I wasn’t alive during the 1970s, so I can’t speak as to the “accuracy” of this film getting the period and its anxieties right (although I take it for granted that it does). So I had to find my own entry point into this deeply personal, reflective film, and it wasn’t very hard, because just like Jamie, I, too, am the offspring of parents older than the norm. I, too, have grown up in a household where my caregivers have struggled to adapt to (and understand) current trends—parents with tastes that remain entrenched in eras that have long since passed. I envied my peers whose parents were young, lively and hip—I still do, in a way, because I think I’ve become rather an old soul, making it hard for me to connect to people my age. But I try not to let that get me down too much. I’m pretty content with who I am, and I love my parents with all my heart. Nor would I change how I was raised.
Dorothea Fields does fear that she is losing touch with her son’s world, however. She is aware of time’s slow crawl, and how progress has touched every aspect of her existence since her Depression-era childhood. Punk rock has eclipsed wartime ballads. Cigarettes are now dangerous instead of trendy trifles. Propriety is no longer a stopgap when addressing sensitive topics (which leads to an incredible conversation about menstruation late in the film—perhaps the film’s shining moment). In a word, she’s slipping, so the next best thing is to recruit Jamie’s best friend Julie and their lodger Abbie to reach out to him. Even if they’re young women, they can still teach him to be a good man—or so she thinks. Little does she know that Julie likes to fool around with other guys and sneak into her son’s bedroom at night for midnight chats, and that Abbie is an ardent feminist without a filter…
20th Century Women is a comedy of errors in some ways, and a melancholy rumination on character and circumstance in others. Like a crisply-woven novella, it gives you breadth and range in a short amount of time so that, when finished, the story sighs with the memories of these beautifully-sketched characters. I wish I had been given even more time with them to be honest, because they filled out the frame so well, but all the same I was taken with what Mike Mills gave me. Annette Bening is so lovely and grounded as an Earth Mother figure trapped in the net of time, and Greta Gerwig adds so many layers to her semi-tragic portrayal of Abbie that you can’t help but fall in love with her fortitude. Elle Fanning is also strong, and I was taken aback at how natural and in-tune Lucas Jade Zumann was in these surroundings. He makes a wonderful first impression, and I want to see more of him.
Sometimes you don’t need to expect too much from a film. Sometimes it’s best to let it work on you unawares as it introduces its setting and characters, and catch you by surprise at every superb little moment. This is one of those films, I think. It also has a killer soundtrack to boot, so your ears will not be neglected (not that this film neglects you in any way—quite the contrary: it nourishes).