I f you are into cute indie movies, here’s a good one for you. “20th Century Women” is an endearing comedy and drama film set in 1970s Santa Barbara. The movie stars a lost but caring Dorothea Fields, played by Annette Bening. She tries to figure out how to raise her 15-year-old son who is just beginning to involve himself in ’70s teen culture. Having trouble connecting with her son Jamie, Dorothea employs the help of their feminist roommate Abbie and Jamie’s shy yet mysterious best friend Julie in influencing her son’s personal and social development. The movie is sentimental, sweet and left me in tears by the end.
Written and directed by the director of “The Beginners,” Mike Mills, the movie was inspired by the indie director’s young life and his relationship with his single mother. Situated in a culturally rich and historically chaotic time in America, the movie explores a young boy’s development as influenced by both general ’70s culture and the women in his life. While it may appear that the story centers around a young boy, the movie really revolves around the women characters.
Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening and Elle Fanning comprise the film’s dream cast. They depict thoughtful, quirky and tasteful women with complex inner lives and struggles. Each female character helps Jamie foster a specific awareness for important aspects of womanhood, from sex to dealing with emotions to friendship. I especially loved the Greta Gerwig character, Abbie, because she had this endearing, subtle sense of humor to her, a deep love for the Women’s Movement and the coolest pink hair.
The movie is also extremely aesthetically charming. The house it is set at is a worn-down mansion filled with visually appealing ’70s furniture, lush, spilling plants and pastel-colored decor. The film’s beautiful cinematography bears a heavy resemblance to Mill’s other movie “The Beginners.” In fact, “20th Century Women” even has cinematic techniques that are identical to “The Beginners.” Both films feature quick montages of historical and cultural tidbits of the time periods they are set in, as well as brief clips that focus on one character’s life. These moments in the film are used as ways of fast-forwarding through time or to give the audience quick summations of a character’s personality.
What I loved about the movie was its general essence. It definitely had some heavier themes embedded in it, but it dealt with them in a humorous, lighthearted way. Like many indie movies, it wasn’t extremely action-packed, but I wouldn’t call it lackluster—it was rather subtle, sweet and even poetic in some places. I think what gave it these qualities were the casual conversations the characters had with each other concerning their feelings, growing up and the nature of their relationships—things that are not always very concrete, but still very emotionally-charged and relatable.
I also thought the affection the characters had for one another was one of the main reasons the movie was so heartwarming and beautiful, especially when this tenderness was expressed by the male characters. The eagerness of young Jamie to learn about feminism and be sensitive to his mother’s needs, or the other male character William’s enthrallment by the beauty and grace of all the women he had relationships with was heartening. It was something you don’t see every day in movies or television or life, for that matter—this genuine male sensitivity and concern for understanding a women’s perspective above asserting his own.
In addition to the caring regard the characters had for one another, I also loved the film’s fashion and soundtrack. Elle Fanning’s corduroy pants and tiny wristwatch made me want to copy her vintage style. The soundtrack was also beautiful—the movie had instrumental songs that added intensity, as well as a few casual dance scenes where the characters were blasting the Talking Heads or David Bowie.
One of my criticisms of the movie centers around one of the defining features of Mills’ work—those fast-paced montages about the world or certain characters. Undoubtedly, these scenes added a lot of flavor to the movie, but I didn’t like the way they were conducted. Instead of having more deeply sentimental moments between characters, I felt that the director would simply throw in one of these narrated montages of the climate of the United States or what’s happening in the life of a character. I viewed this filmmaking strategy as a short-cut to provoke a response from the audience. Instead of having characters act out certain things the director wanted the audience to know about, he would more simply just tell us what was going on using these clips. While this aspect of the film did give it a bittersweet finality that made me tear up, I felt like the movie was more clear-cut because of it. It didn’t leave any room for interpretation of specific character dynamics or of the ending.
Another aspect of the movie I thought was lacking was the diversity of the women portrayed. While there is no doubt that the characters were distinct individuals, I felt that it could have included more women of color or women with different sexual orientations, especially since the film was so broadly titled “20th Century Women.”
“20th Century Women” was nominated for one Academy Award, best original screenplay. It was a cute, sweet movie, and I think that Annette Bening could have been nominated for best actress, but that overall it may not have had the depth to be nominated for other categories. I would recommend it to anyone who likes lighthearted, aesthetically-pleasing indie movies with fun, old-school soundtracks, or, more precisely, any Vassar student who subscribes to the ’70s mom jeans aesthetic.