20th Century Women is a small movie, with a lot of soul, guaranteed to enthrall and entertain. At the center of the story is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old being raised in Southern California by his fifty-something year old single mother, Dorthea, played magnificently by Annette Bening. Jamie is literally surrounded by women in his household - In addition to Dorthea, there's Abbie (Gretta Gerwig), a somewhat troubled, yet eccentric border in their house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), his neighbor friend who’s as beautiful and alluring as she is devoted. Dorthea is convinced Jamie is at a particularly crucial time in his life and she’s unable to carry on the task of influencing him alone. As such, she enlists the help of the younger two women in his world. They initially resist and suggest she seek out help from the male border in the house (Billy Crudup), but at Dorothea’s insistence, the two agree to actively participate in Jamie’s teen years up bringing.
This includes Julie giving unwanted intimate details of her sexual escapades with Jamie’s classmates, inciting jealousy on his part. For Julie, she wants to ensure Jamie is fully aware of what it means to be a woman and how to please a woman. Within a few short weeks, Jamie and all three women go through much individually and collectively. The young son is a bit overwhelmed with love, opinion, support and advice, and Dorothea seriously questions the validity of her recruits, especially as the two over-share their feminist views at a dinner party. While Dorothea is in many ways a modern, liberal woman, she is also conservative and not fully embracing feminism or admitting to her closed off ways. Maybe her influence is enough, or maybe she needs to learn how to listen to her son and work on their relationship. Throughout all the teaching and learning, humor and drama collide, with a nice balance of both, along with a smattering of 70s punk music and California street style. About the only detraction in this movie is the smoking, which is probably realistic for the times. Dorothea smokes constantly to the frustration of her son and her ultimate demise. Although the whole cast of 20th Century Women are good and tight, Bening and Gerwig are the stand outs. Gerwig probably delivers her best performance of her young career, while Bening is seamless and convincing.
Based loosely on director Mike Mills’s mother, Dorothea is a complex and amusing character, and 20th Century Women is a welcome follow up to his earlier film, Beginners, which was based on his father coming out of the closet at the age of 75. As in Beginners, the performances are exceptional. Both of Mills’s films have a unique style, now characteristic of of Mills. The films deftly combine drama, comedy and mixed media visuals; small stories over short period of time, with emphasis on characters and relationships. Mills knows how to keep things simple, without over-simplifying; how to entertain, without going for big laughs; how to be subtle, without being boring.