by Mayukh Sen
20th Century Women
Dir. Mike Mills, U.S., A24
Near the end of Mike Mills's 20th Century Women, a group of people are huddled in a living room watching President Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech, rapt with attention. After it's over, most people in the room agree: the speech was abjectly terrible, and Carter’s political career is probably fucked. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is stunned at this reaction. She has one thing to say, and she rattles it off with the utmost sincerity: "I thought that was beautiful."
Dorothea, an emotionally distant single mother raising a son in the Santa Barbara of 1979, is a role that Bening should be able to invest with the proper amounts of transparency and mystery. Remoteness, which Bening’s harshest critics have leveled against her as a decisive flaw, can be one of Bening’s real virtues when it lives inside the right film, like The Kids Are All Right. Bening is sensational when she takes a particular kind of person—one who is skeptical of "kids these days”—and infuses her with inner life, making her wryly funny and, ultimately, sympathetic. Her women tend to wear a pliable armor that gradually erodes, revealing strains of staunch conservatism.
As Bening plays her, Dorothea is sarcastic and salty in one scene, deeply serious in the next. She is prone to speaking in hoary neologisms, dispensing wisdom when no one asked for it. "Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world," she casually intones in a late-night kitchen conversation with Jamie. The film is filled with jarring moments like these, tonally muddled—toeing a line between ridiculous and sincere and never achieving a believable medium. Bening’s heavily mannered performance is in service of an ultimately unrealized character. Her face becomes a canvas of fussy, twitching anxiety, contorting to express suspicion and concern. It is exhausting to watch. Bening’s truckload of tics is enough to rival Geraldine Page—one wonders if she is straining this hard simply to illuminate a character who barely exists on the page.
The major focus of 20th Century Women is on this confused and confusing woman, Dorothea, and the increasing barriers she encounters in trying to understand her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), whom she’s raising on her own. Like 2009’s Beginners, 20th Century Women is cribbed from the autobiographical details of Mills’s own life, with Dorothea based on his mother. She is one of the film’s three titular women. The other two are Julie (Elle Fanning), a precocious and pretty high school student, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer recovering cervical cancer patient with a blazing Bowie shag. The lives of these three women are filtered through the prism of Jamie’s memory.
Mills works hard to create an authentic sense of time and place, with a soundtrack that includes Black Flag and the Talking Heads. Interstitials between scenes are made up of archival footage and newsreels from the respective eras in which these women were born. As characters speak, austere shots of Stella-brand cigarettes against monochromatic backgrounds flash across the screen, mimicking Abbie’s style of photography. One of Mills’s more irritating visual flourishes is, on occasion, to surround cars with soft neon orbs as they drive down roads. This tendency for floridness is a problem that has plagued Mills before. Beginners had its fair share of such distracting twee aesthetic flourishes, self-conscious but never particularly self-aware. The work of Mills’s actors, though, can offset this. What anchored Beginners, for example, was the pathos of Christopher Plummer's performance as a newly out octogenarian succumbing to cancer, so touching that it overwhelmed the film’s granular flaws.
In 20th Century Women, all of Mills’s aesthetic ornamentation begins to feel like a distraction from a void at the film’s center. Bening’s usual register—bemused, ironic detachment—is not conducive to bringing a character like Dorothea, marred by an inability to communicate with her son, to life. An obvious justification for ambiguity here could be the fact that this portrait of Dorothea is filtered through the experiences and perspectives of his central character, Jamie. But the film’s male perspective feels half-baked and hackneyed—that of a man looking back at his mother, realizing he never really knew her, but loving her anyway. Grounding the film in this rather mundane perspective is not enough to account for the inadequacy of Dorothea’s characterization.
If 20th Century Women has any traces of the basic honesty that Beginners showcased in Plummer’s work, it’s in Gerwig. Dejected after her own traumatic battle with cancer, Abbie has reached a standstill. She is trying in earnest to recreate the euphoria of her aborted college experience, populating her free time with art shows and parties. Watching Gerwig at work recalls what Andrew Sarris wrote of Debra Winger in 1983’s Terms of Endearment: "Actors who hit emotions dead center are generally less interesting than the performers who come at things from the side, or with a touch of irony," he observed. Gerwig approaches her performances with a similar philosophy: like Winger, Gerwig’s gift is emotional transparency, and she approaches this particular performance with a sense of self-effacement that she deploys into a virtue, clearly showing this woman’s deep reserves of pain. In theory, the warring performing styles of Bening and Gerwig could create a friction to make clearer the fundamental dissimilarity between Dorothea and Abbie, two women in different stations in their lives. Instead, Gerwig’s loose and unencumbered performance reveals the deficiencies in Bening’s remote approach.
The emotional distance plaguing 20th Century Women only puts the necessity of acting like Gerwig’s into relief. "20th Century Women is ultimately a portrait of all these women who raised me, who I love, that still confuse me, that are still, like, a mystery to me," Mills claimed in a behind-the-scenes featurette. Mills seems to communicate that this mystery is, in itself, pertinent. The result of this is that the film does not take the viewer far beyond the romantic, heartwarming notion that men idealize their mothers, especially as they grow older. This is one man’s convoluted way of stating that Dorothea contains multitudes; what those precise multitudes are remains a mystery that Mills doesn’t crack.
In 20th Century Women, Bening’s tendency to hold back becomes more of a liability than an asset. By film’s end, her crucial parenting mistakes seem to be of little consequence, and are glossed over via wistful remembrances of what she meant to our narrator. Due to Bening’s guardedness, the film’s portraiture of this central woman is insufficient. The mystery isn’t terribly compelling fodder for a cinema like Mills’s, which often foregrounds its own humanism as insight; it makes sense as a starting point, but, apart from Gerwig’s work, the film doesn’t progress much beyond a vague, befuddled, boyish fascination.