At first blush, “20th Century Women” may seem rather grandiose for a movie title, a bit pompous perhaps, presumptuous even. Especially for a very personal, autobiographical indie kind of film. After all, this is writer-director Mike Mills’ cinematic attempt to explain, or at least better understand, his own complicated mother.
And yet, by movie’s end, that title seems surprisingly apt. For all its quirky and offbeat specificity, “20th Century Women” is sneakily ambitious too. Its subject may be Mills’ mother, but its topic really might be 20th Century women.
Annette Bening is certain to earn an Oscar nomination for her brilliant performance as Dorothea, a slightly unconventional single mom who’s doing her best to raise her teenage son, Jamie. The movie is set in Santa Barbara in 1979, when she’s 55 and he’s 15.
“Do you think you’re happy?”
Dorothea and Jamie often have unusually adult conversations. They’re sometimes awkward, sometimes profound, and almost always revealing.
“Men always feel like they have to fix things for women, but they’re not doing anything. Just be there. Sometimes it’s hard for all of you.”
“I’m not all men. I’m just me.”
“Well, yes and no.”
Being an older and single mom, Dorothea frets that she may not be a good enough parent to her growing son.
“I know you less every day,” she tells him. So she enlists a couple of other women to help her raise him. Abbie is a 30-year-old punk photographer who’s recovering from cancer and Julie is a 17-year-old platonic friend of Jamie’s.
“You get to see him out in the world, as a person. I never will.”
Between the three of them, Jamie gets a very well-rounded, if also contradictory, immersion into life from a female perspective.
And refreshingly, each of the women is fully enough realized to seem like real people, rather than mouthpieces for particular causes or points of view.
This movie is a smart, funny, and incisive look at the way we were at a particular time in American history – Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech is even spotlighted – that seems both distant from and relevant to the present 21st century day.