20th Century Women isn’t as big as its title — and that’s fine

Think of your mother. Think of your late mother. Think of your late mother, whom you miss. Think of your late mother, whom you miss, without crying. Think of your late mother, whom you miss but who did not leave you unwounded. Think of your mother and cry.

If those were the stage directions in a screenplay about someone reckoning with his mother’s life and legacy, that script — no matter its dialogue — would contain more plot than 20th Century Women. This, anyway, has been the critical whinging about writer-director Mike Mills’ latest movie, a gently autobiographical sketch of life with Mom at the edge of his adulthood.

It’s 1979, and in Santa Barbara, California, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a shy 15-year-old, the dutiful only child of his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening). Jamie is awakening to desire, thanks to his friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who climbs through the window for secret, sexless slumber parties, escaping the clods whom she sleeps with but doesn’t like. Dorothea is awakening to a different desire: that her son not become one of those clods himself. 

Sharing Jamie’s close orbit around Dorothea are Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 24-year-old tenant in Dorothea’s Victorian fixer-upper, and a charmingly copeless handyman (played by Billy Crudup as an ambulatory James Taylor album cover). In the former, Dorothea senses an opportunity; she recruits Abbie (and, reluctantly, Julie) to coach Jamie toward enlightened adulthood. With the latter, Dorothea indulges another kind of opportunity — mostly, you sense, to rule out further exploration.

That’s it, then. There are jokes about certain feminist literature and certain stances of personhood that should be easy to take for granted now (but are not, especially right now), and there’s a fine soundtrack (dominated by Talking Heads) to ground us in the cultural moment, and the movie’s conflicts are mild and its persons mostly solvent and the nostalgia affectingly buoyant. 

That’s it, and that’s enough. Sometimes, it’s enough to think of your mother and feel buoyant. Art doesn’t often summon such a reaction to so complex a memory hive as Mom. 

Women functions as a kind of bookend to Beginners, Mills’ similarly evanescent 2011 rendering of life with Dad at the man’s unexpectedly gay twilight. Both films turn on shrewd central performances rather than on story: Beginners sent Christopher Plummer to pick up his first Academy Award, and Women is being marketed as an Oscar vouchsafe for Bening, who has not won before. 

Bening is marvelous here, all the more so for her part’s lack of show. No blow-out fight, no weeping jag, no big monologue. Yes, her Dorothea Fields (a Depression-suggestive name for a Depression-surviving figure) denatures Bening’s easy glamour with dime-store plaids, a tragic perm and a chain-smoker’s wrinkles, showing us a postmenopausal Polaroid of SoCal-tinged bedragglement. But this is neither mask nor joke nor stagey simulacrum. For those of us whose moms did their most resonant mothering after Watergate and before, say, the Challenger explosion, it’s simply what the women you listened to looked like.

And Bening also sounds like the best of the women you’ve listened to: maddeningly self-contradictory but usually right, piercingly judgmental (and usually right) but morally correct, eye-narrowing and tetchy but forgiving, impervious to embarrassment but a heat-seeking missile for anything that raises a blush in her offspring. 

Mills’ conception of Dorothea is nevertheless something of a cheat. The character, as Mills’ mother was at this moment in his life, is 55. It’s an age that gives the movie’s title its conceit, with this particular woman of the 20th century having lived through the most turbulent of its events, and it lets Bening tap her considerable reservoirs of kittenish appeal and stern disapproval. It’s also an age that seems to bewilder the other people here as much as they bewilder Dorothea.

This is something a plot, something more in the way of A-to-B, might have assuaged, I suppose. Even quilted with Mills’ kaleidoscopic flashbacks and flash-forwards (Sean Porter shot the movie; Leslie Jones edited), Women is a cloud some will find wispy rather than impressive. Whatever. Dorothea, like a lot of moms, might tell you to get up off the grass and stop daydreaming. On another day, she would certainly instruct you to lie down and look up at the sky. That’s a contradiction, not a conflict, not a plot. But for Mills, with Bening, it’s lovely. 

Categories: Movies