Maybe you will like it
Remember that 2oth Century Women trailer I enjoyed so much? Well, I got to go to a screening the other night and all of my suspicions were confirmed: it was lovely and warm. In it, the residents of a Southern California boarding house form a mismatched family for a period of time in the late 1970s, all in the name of helping teenage Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) grow into a “good man.”
What makes a “good man,” exactly? It turns out everyone has a different answer! And Jamie must navigate his way through a forest of searing hot takes in order to discover what he thinks is best for himself. It’s like a metaphor for tweets and society.
Women is the first film in six years from writer-director Mike Mills, and in a lot of ways it feels like a continuation of an idea he grazed in his last project Beginners*. That movie largely focuses on one man’s relationship with his father (who came out of the closet late in life), but a big part of its warmth and humor comes from the secondary portrait of a mother and son. Knowing her husband is gay despite it being a secret, and resigned to the safe and loving life they have built for themselves, Georgia pours her displaced love into childrearing. In the driver’s seat of her car, she smiles at her kid and says, “Point!” initiating a game where she steers through the Los Angeles streets in accordance with her son’s silent directions. Passing through a room in their house, she splays out a hand like a wizard, and her son crumbles to the floor in mock death—two friends with a bit. In Women we see that kind of relationship take center stage, with another short-haired, pants wearing mid-century mom trying to raise her son to be a type of man she hasn’t met yet.
Because she is a single parent in a time when that’s still uncommon, and because she suspects her one world view will not be impactful enough to inform her son’s entire frame of reference, Dorothea (Annette Bening) recruits a punk rock art freak tenant named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s cigarette smoking, daughter-of-a-therapist best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help guide him through adolescence. With them he sneaks out of town for the first time, goes to grungy basement music venues, and reads about the female orgasm—and Dorothea remains all the while observing from the periphery, struggling with her dueling urges to just tell Jamie how the world works and let him make the decisions necessary to become someone separate from her. At one point, a guy from a punk show spray paints “BLACK FLAG” and “ART FAG” onto the doors of the family car because Jamie listens to the Talking Heads. Later, when her son isn’t home, Dorothea puts on a Black Flag record and then a Talking Heads record for comparison and laughs to herself, “I guess I’m more of an art fag, too.”
The age differences between these characters isn’t a mistake—through Bening, Gerwig, and Fanning we see how, even though each of them is reaching in the same direction (progress! fulfilling themselves!), each of them contains a whorl of different interdependent cultural baggage. No scene holds that tension more deftly than when Abbie mentions her period at the boarding house dinner table. Dorothea is mortified and tries to change the subject, but Julie ends up feeling emboldened and recounts her first sexual experience to the group as the adults shift uncomfortably in their chairs. These adults aren’t suits and squares, they’re hippies a decade out from their heyday—sweet looking men with beards and worn-in jeans, quiet bookish types—who may have wholeheartedly supported women’s lib, but who aren’t quite ready to talk about PMS while enjoying their side salad.
And that’s what 20th Century Women does best: reminds you that you can sand your own bannisters and wear slacks to your full-time job and still not be wholly comfortable with your gender. And, that if you don’t surround yourself with people you trust enough to show your world to you, you’re never gonna grow.
20th Century Women will be in theaters Dec. 25.
*a movie I also loved