At 20th Century Women’s best moments it’s got this real chill hangout movie vibe. A loose, easygoing slide that puts the audience into the headspace that Santa Barbara probably deserves. Work probably does get done there but right now it feels like a million miles away. The punk scene’s still alive, Reagan is not yet in the White House, the last moments when one could kid themselves that America wasn’t about to radically change. When the film’s got its flow on it’s easy to be lulled into it.
In a way it would be a great double feature with Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!! Which is probably the most boring banal observation possible to make about it, tying this meditation on the changing role of women throughout the 20th century to a slacker stoner baseball joint, just don’t judge me too harshly for it. Both look at the families we make and how they enable and shape our ability to live. The stop point though, is that masculinity is simply allowed to be, accepted and unexamined as a sort of natural baseline. Femininity, its definition and purpose and role is something to be scrutinised, because it is not masculine it is aberrant, and so we need to look at the shapes it takes.
We do this through the eyes of Jamie Fields as played by Lucas Jade Zumann. A fatherless child to an older mother, he is introduced to the concept of adulthood by the three women in his life. His mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) self-possessed, professional; their lodger, Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig) self-obsessed, fine artist, punk; friend Julie Hamlin (Elle Fanning) self-destructive, aimless. I realise but the way I worded that I made it sound like a sex thing. It isn’t.
Worried, that the handyman (and second lodger) engaged in the perpetual repair of their house may not be a compelling enough father figure for her son, and that she is now too out of touch to properly relate to him, Dorothea asks the others to mentor him, show him what being a modern man means in 1979. Problem is, none of them quite agree on what that means, even less so on what woman is. Hijinks ensue.
It is regularly hilarious, regularly touching and so well observed. Writer/Director Mike Mills says he based it on the women who he was close to in his childhood. There is no reason here to doubt it. This is not the work of a filmmaker who is trying to get it, feels like he’s already there. Like, there’s things, scenes, lines here that just cut to the bone. We’ve the sense of a world well understood, and it might not quite be the real word, with its artfully ruined mansion and the seeming absence of any school whatsoever, but it knows reality, and it knows how it do us.
It pins me to say though, but despite almost every moment here being fantastic the film struggles to tie them together. Which ain’t too big a problem when the building blocks are so good, but there were moments, stretches of maybe about ten minutes at best when the film’s rhythms hypnotized. Then it gets too abrupt, too discursive, rolls into a new direction without finishing the previous thought. It’s hard to say precisely what’s going on aside from making poor analogies to arguments sloppily made, never quite reaching their point. So many times it feels like what it’s trying to reach is just outside its grasp. Which make those moments when it’s decisive, when it ends a sequence with a perfectly articulated statement just so juicy. It gets there less often than it doesn’t, and so sadly feels slightly less than the sum of its parts.
But you got this trio of amazing actors, with Billy Crudup supporting, and they absolutely own their material. The great thing about putting it almost forty years in the past is that you’re giving these actors the opportunity to explore the adults of their childhood. Each given the opportunity to recontextualise and question the actions of their elders. There’s this sorta innocent feel to the performances here that of children imitating their parents but with the maturity of the grown. It’s shining.
It’s a comfy film, full of warmth and nostalgia, effortlessly caught in Sean Porter’s washed out cinematography. Maybe a cinema’s just the wrong place for it. An open air screening on a hot summer’s night, friends, that’s probably all it would take for all the flaws here to be passed over, course I’d enjoy most movies much more under those circumstances, there’s not many I’d actually want to watch when it happens though. Add this to the list.