Feminism is often misinterpreted by most in today's society, especially with how the Internet often attacks this perspective. Many confuse it with the idea that women are better than men, which simply isn't true; feminism promotes the notion that men and women are equal, and should be treated as such. Writer/director Mike Mills explores this subject in 20th Century Women in the framework of a coming-of-age story, told from the perspective of a teenaged boy. It sounds fascinating from a glance, but the one major question I asked myself walking into the screening was whether it would exploit feminism or explore it naturally.
The year is 1979 in Santa Barbara, CA. Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his single mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening). She begins to feel that she's losing her son, so she enlists the help of their housemate, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and his best friend/first love, Julie (Elle Fanning). Dorothea is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that he grows up to be a decent man, as he navigates life without a fatherly figure.
Perhaps one of the biggest themes that 20th Century Women explores is the relationship between a mother and son. They have always been close, although they have both started to distance their true selves from one another over time. Dorothea believes it to be that he has no male figure in his life to set him on the right path, which leads her to underestimate the relationship that they have shared for his entire life. Abbie brings a strong feminist perspective, believing that the most important step to becoming a decent man is to understand how to truly respect the female perspective on life. Meanwhile, Julie offers a more therapeutic direction, which begins to confuse their longstanding friendship even more than his feelings for her already has. The sequences that Jamie shares with Abbie and Julie are emotionally gratifying, especially as the film enforces that the women in our lives can have just as important of an impact as the men do.
20th Century Women isn't only about the drama; it's also quite funny. Life can be humorous through some of our darkest times, and that's exactly how Mills brings us into Dorothea and Jamie's world. They are a family unlike any other, as they exchange some witty dialogue that generates a fair amount of laughs. However, none of them impede on the film by feeling forced; rather, they come across as genuine moments that break up the dramatic scenes quite well. Some of this comes from the film's exploration of the punk movement, as Dorothea struggles to understand how Abbie and Jamie find it inspirational. In a way, this is also a story of discovery for her, as she has been forced to remain strong for her son through life's most difficult times. The is a coming-of-age film with more on its mind than Jamie growing into a man.
Gender norms and societal expectations are absolutely critical to the film throughout the feature's duration. Abbie discusses acceptable behavior for men to have with women and around other men, while Julie shows him more superficial lessons, such as how to hold a cigarette and walk without looking self-conscious. While these are undeniably intriguing themes, it becomes a bit overbearing. Mills goes as far as to excessively quote from feminist texts, which makes the film begin to feel a bit more like a college lecture than it does a feature film. He ultimately allows narrative and character to be placed on the back burner, while feminist theories take the forefront. After introducing intriguing characters that we come to genuinely care for, we discover that their stories aren't made the priority. This is an exposition-heavy film that contains voice-over narration that dramatically dampens the emotional impact. This especially holds true as the final scene explains what will happen to the characters after the credits roll; it's a lazy and disrespectful way to conclude a story.
Mills manages to draw some impressive talent to this feature, which isn't entirely surprising after bringing audiences Beginners in 2010. Relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann is convincing in the role of Jamie, as he's simply trying to live out an ordinary teenage life. Annette Bening is just as tremendous as one would imagine as Dorothea. She brings a breath of fresh air to the film's sense of drama and humor that wouldn't have been here otherwise. Bening consistently makes it look easy, but there are a lot of layers in this role that are handled in a very delicate fashion. Greta Gerwig delivers upon the quirkiness that audiences have come to expect from her, although she also manages to hit all of the dramatic heights that her co-stars are reaching. Gerwig is convincing and heartbreakingly relatable. Elle Fanning shares good chemistry with Zumann, as they discuss life's various obstacles. Overall, this is an impressive cast that continues to deliver upon the screenplay's strengths.
While certainly overbearing in its attempt to educate Jamie and the audience on feminism, writer/director Mike Mills has crafted an enjoyable film that relates reasonably well. Some lulls in pacing result in the film feeling longer than it is, but this remains to be a journey well-worth taking. It's a coming-of-age story that gives just as much attention to the son as it does the mother in this parent-child narrative. However, the third act relies upon lazy storytelling techniques in a voice-over that cheats the audience and its characters of emotional gratification that feels rather frustrating. Nevertheless, this is a film that utilizes strong performances and worthwhile themes to leave its impression on viewers. 20th Century Women brings characters that feel undeniably real, making this a journey worth taking. Recommended.