Recently, I’ve come to realize more and more that there’s an entire generation of filmmakers running around inspired by Wes Anderson. Yes, many of Anderson’s tics have become downright synonymous with the indie genre, but as ol’ Wes himself has crept into the mainstream, his flock of followers has grown. Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg would not be where they are today without him. It’s hard to look at indie darlings of the past year like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie or Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster without feeling Anderson’s frail, weathered mitts all over them. In a somewhat reductionist sense, 20th Century Women is no different.
The film follows a single mother (Annette Bening) who also rents out parts of her house to two adults (Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup). After multiple failed attempts at introducing father figures into her son Jamie’s life, Bening’s character Dorothea decides to turn to Abbie (Gerwig) and Julie (the boy’s friend, played by Elle Fanning), asking the two of them to help her raise him. It’s got all the stiffness, awkward dialogue, precocious youngsters, immaculate shots, and unconventional family dynamics that you’d expect from an Anderson picture, but writer/director Mike Mills also offers something a few steps deeper.
As unreal as the film feels at times, it also touches on some very real subjects. It’s interspersed with real moments from history. Abbie is recovering from cervical cancer and told she can’t have children. Julie believes she may be pregnant, but while her behavior through the film could easily be characterized as “sexual irresponsibility,” it’s actually a man’s irresponsibility that leads to this. Yes, the film also has very strong feminist themes. It doesn’t necessarily paint extreme feminism as the absolute right way, but it certainly encourages a feminist upbringing for young boys, especially straight, white boys. Mills has stated that the film is semi-autobiographical, being based on his own feminist upbringing.
In addition to all that, the film’s characters serve as potent metaphors for their respective generations. Dorothea, having been born in the early 1920s and eventually to die in 1999, is a literal 20th century woman. She represents the 1930s-40s, old-fashioned yet forward-thinking, feminist yet conservative. Hers is an era of depression and turmoil, but also discovery of both the self and the world. Abbie is a child of the 1960s, full of radical ideas and creativity, but also vulnerability and hubris. She takes every challenge as it comes, but falls to devastating lows in the process. Julie represents the kids of the 1970s, the same era as young Jamie. Infected with what Jimmy Carter elegantly dubbed a “crisis of confidence,” she goes to great lengths searching for an identity of her own, brought into a world of uncertainty, of unappreciated freedoms and unwelcome repressions. When she and Jamie go up north to find themselves, they lose each other, and need to look backward to Dorothea and Abbie to find their way. Crudup’s character is just sort of there. I think he’s supposed to be comic relief or something? He doesn’t add much.
20th Century Women is a great film. The silent moments of Bening’s incredible performance fill more space than most grand soliloquies, and Gerwig is practically unrecognizable as Abbie, a character I immediately fell in love with. I’d give it an A, but my general positivity has rendered my letter-grading system pretty much meaningless. From now on, I’ll try to grade things out of 100. In this case, 94/100. Also, proceeds from this film go to Planned Parenthood, so it may be worth seeing just for that.
My movie/album of the year lists are coming, so don’t worry.