A few years ago, writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) made a touching and uproarious film that was both a tribute to his father and all fathers called Beginners, which resulted in Christopher Plummer getting a much deserved acting Oscar. His latest work, 20th Century Women, could be looked at as his tip of the hat to mothers around the world, but I’m not sure many of them would approve of the way the mother in this film decides to life-coach her teenaged son, circa the late 1970s in Santa Barbara, California. In fact, the film seems to be a spiritual companion to another 2016 release, Captain Fantastic, which also dealt with unconventional parenting.
In both cases, the pluses and minuses of their respective radical approaches are weighed, and ultimately the verdict is that, while the kids being raised exit the experience with a far more open mind than their conventionally raised counterparts, they do harbor some regrets about their methods. In other words: “Sorry for the shitty upbringing, but at least you have great stories to tell your kids.” The mother in 20th Century Women is Dorothea (Annette Bening), a single mother raising her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, better known as the creepy lead ghost kid in Sinister 2) in a time in America where the last vestiges of the ’60s are fading and she is feeling ill-equipped to raise her son without the influence of other, varied voices contributing to his knowledge base, particularly when it comes to women.
She recruits a few familiar faces to help with Jamie’s alternative education, including her boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an artist and would-be punk rocker; Jamie’s best friends, Julie (Elle Fanning), a slightly older girl who is discovering her sexual boundaries with everyone but Jamie; and local handyman William (Billy Crudup), who is helping rebuild parts of their crumbling house, while flirting with pretty much everyone.
While Abbie and Julie are interesting characters, they are trapped by this far-less interesting film, in which Benning is so underserved, every word out of her mouth sounds like a chapter heading in the worst imaginable self-help book on parenting. I tend to believe any film is made a little bit better by the presence of Gerwig, and that certainly is the case here, as she adds layers of honesty and authenticity to every scene.
As she did in The Neon Demon and her other release this week, Live By Night, Fanning’s potential as an actor are still being discovered with each new role. Here, she is attempting to teach Jamie about what qualities in a man appeal to women, all the while being the great, unreachable object of his affection. Their friendship is shifting, and the days of her crawling in his window in the middle of the night and innocently tucking herself in bed next to him are at an end.
The problem with 20th Century Women is sometimes elusive, but it all seems to come back to it feeling too much like one big life lesson. Each time someone opens their mouth to issue advice or some other brand teaching for Jamie, you feel like you should get out your highlighter and run it across each word that comes out. It’s a series of four running monologues aimed at a kid who seems to have his act together without any guidance from anyone. The movie is far more effective when the group is simply hanging out in various combinations and being themselves rather than Jamie’s appointed educators.
20th Century Women has sporadic inspired moments and a few scenes featuring genuine raw and fragile emotions. But overall, it feels passive-aggressively preachy, vague in its lessons, and overwritten to the point where I was genuinely dreading every moment Bening was gearing up to speak. That isn’t her fault, but Mills has simply overwritten his work to the point where this parenting experiment only exists in an intellectual exercise and not as an actual, compelling drama. Maybe it’s supposed to be funny or entertainingly cynical, but it comes across as mostly awful.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.