Set in Southern California as the 1970s were coming to a close, 20th Century Women explores changing generational morays relating to gender and the mystery of time passing. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea. a divorced Mom in her mid 50s raising her shy 12 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Realizing Jamie needs younger voices in his life, Dorothea recruits Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a DIY artist in her mid 20s and a rebellious teenager Julie (Dakota Fanning) to mentor Jamie on navigating a changing cultural landscape.
Dorothea is of the 1940s generation, her icon is Humphrey Bogart, she admires his world weary persona of cool detachment. Abbie's post-hippie outlook embraces feminism, punk rock, and intimate personal expression, causing occasional friction in the household (she rents a room in Dorathea's house). Gerwig's one of the most engaging screen presences of this decade, here she's pitch perfect as the ideal older sister. Julie is still finding her way, a representation of Gen X that came of age during the 1970s.
As Abbie and Julie take Jamie under their wing they school him on many things, providing him with a female perspective. Abbie loans Jamie feminist literature and they have frank discussions about sexuality, conversations he could never have with his mother (or a father for that matter). Dorothea wants Jame to have a positive male role model but he fails to connect with her handyman William (Billy Crudup), a nice enough guy, but unable to connect with the kid.
At times the writing is a little too on the nose, crafting characters as epitomizing a generation can quickly become cliched. The script walks a fine line on that point; the credit goes to the cast for making their characters three dimensional.
Mike MIlls wrote and directed the film, basing it on his own youth in Santa Barbara. Mills is obviously interested in how boys are raised in a culture with gender roles in flux. The soundtrack reinforces the cultural change going on as the Reagan era beckoned. The Talking Heads dominate the soundtrack, their music marked the transition from punk to New Wave. While punk still appeared new in 1979, it was already petering out in the hardcore scenes on the West Coast as the film notes with references to Black Flag with their masculine music of noise and rage.
20th Century Women is a film with well executed scenes and heartfelt performances. As for the story, it tends to stumble into a rushed (and maudlin) last 20 minutes. It's melancholy tone mirrors the film's preoccupation with the passage of time that's refreshingly anti-nostalgic. The writing and acting are the reason to see 20th Century Women, heavy going at times, definitely a film that will encourage discussion and reflection to those open to it.