20th Century Women is a film with a nostalgic appeal to a very specific subset of the moviegoing populace, those who look back on the late 1970s as a high-water mark in the history of American culture. That appeal was largely lost on me. To be certain, it boasts a stellar cast anchored by an almost incomprehensibly good performance from Annette Bening, and it has more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. But it’s also severely lacking in narrative focus, leaving it to function almost entirely on the basis of its ensemble of quirky characters, a group I couldn’t wholeheartedly embrace. Add some obtrusive stylistic touches from director Mike Mills and a muddled message that falls short of the feminist empowerment promised by its premise, and you have a film that I enjoyed far less than the audience around me.
Following the breakout success of Mills’ 2005 Sundance hit Thumbsucker, the director established himself as an early bastion of the twee indie dramedy. With his next feature, 2010’s Beginners, he steered similar themes into more autobiographical waters by dramatizing his father’s revelation — in his 70’s, mind you — that he was both gay and dying from cancer. 20th Century Women tries to recapture the emotional immediacy of Beginners (along with its fixation on cancer) by this time focusing on Mills’ mother, a larger-than-life matriarch played to the hilt by Bening. Intelligent and progressive, Bening’s Dorothea Fields is a force of nature, a late-in-life single mother raising her son in a nurturing environment surrounded by an eclectic adoptive family of boarders in her ramshackle Victorian home.
The film functions less as a story than as a collection of character-driven vignettes, focusing on the two young women (and one extraneous man) that Dorothea has asked to help mold her disaffected teenage son as he awkwardly transitions into manhood. Greta Gerwig plays a post-punk art school dropout with an affinity for feminist literature and a history of cervical cancer, while Elle Fanning is the promiscuous object of our Mills-proxy’s unrequited affections. And then there’s Billy Crudup, a perfunctory conglomeration of masculine stereotypes who serves little purpose beyond attracting the sexual attentions of Gerwig and throwing himself at Bening when he’s not working on her house or her car.
The performances are uniformly outstanding, with the possible exception of Fanning’s limited emotive range. Gerwig and Crudup showcase their exceptional comedic timing, and both have an easy and believablele chemistry with Bening — and Bening is flawless, running the gamut from poised self-control to quiet desperation with the grace of a true pro, all while never missing a comedic beat in the process. But Mills expects this alone to maintain interest, dividing the film into chapters based around each of the central characters. Where the film falters is in its failure to make a point with all of its atmosphere, resorting to denouement via voiceover recounting the outcome of stories that would have been better told on screen than through narration.
Mills’ film is trying to get at some very interesting questions at the heart of topics like culture, identity and sexuality. The problem is, he gets too distracted by flashy post-production effects and exegesis of feminist texts to come to any real conclusions. This is a film worth seeing on the merits of its performances — particularly Bening’s which deserves serious awards-season attention — but those looking for compelling drama will feel short-changed. In an endless sea of indie drama-coms featuring quirky adoptive families, what really make this one stand out? Its gender politics are nothing new, its style is thoroughly unremarkable and its story is practically non-existent. It’s a fun film in spite of its shortcomings, but I for one had hoped for more. Rated R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use.
Now Playing at Fine Arts Theatre, Regal Biltmore Grande.