20th Century Women, a film which chronicles the lives of three women and a teenage boy growing up in Southern California in the changing political climate of the 1970s, has been garnering buzz since its debut at the New York Film Festival in October. However, its release in theaters this January has cemented its spot as an Oscar season favorite. In the film, Dorothea (Annette Bening) is the aging single mother of the young teenage Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann); when she finds herself drifting apart from her son, Dorothea decides to enlist the help of two women, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to help raise Jamie.
But make no mistake: 20th Century Women is no simple coming-of-age story. True, director Mike Mills crafts an honest, powerful film about growing up—but he emphasizes that this growth does not begin and end during adolescence. Rather, through his anecdotal style of filmmaking, Mills gives equal attention to each character’s journey, showing just as much change in Dorothea, Abbie and Julie as he shows in Jamie. Mills develops each character with care and precision, exposing the battles of strength and weakness, genuineness and hypocrisy and independence and reliance that constantly wage within every human, regardless of age or gender. Furthermore, this flawed and often humorous cast of characters complicates the broad label of “feminist”: Even though Dorothea, Abbie, Julie and Jamie are all self-proclaimed feminists, they are each so different in ambition and personality that it seems deceptive to unite them so easily.
Without a doubt, much of the movie’s power comes from its talented actresses. Elle Fanning is perfect as Julie—her long blonde hair and wide blue eyes give an air of innocence that contrasts her rebellious lifestyle of sex and drugs. Still, despite the slow reveal of details about her troubled home life, Fanning never makes you feel sorry for Julie; her delivery and expressions border on annoying at times and her innocuous appearance sometimes strikes the audience as deceptive. This clash gives her depth and complexity and puts us in the confused, conflicted mindset of Jamie, her childhood friend and longtime admirer.
Interestingly, Greta Gerwig displays the opposite effect: her short, messy red crop matches Abbie’s taste in punk music and hardcore feminist literature, but as the movie progresses, the audience begins to see her softness. Gerwig’s tone remains tough and caustic even during expressions of her vulnerability and she allows Abbie’s flaws to come through as clearly as her strengths.
Most notable, however, the incomparable Annette Bening shines as the slightly frumpy, brutally honest and stubbornly practical Dorothea, who cannot seem to find her place in any generation of women. Most of Bening’s acting makes Dorothea into a humorous, sometimes frustrating, character. But throughout the film, her insecurities burn holes in her confident persona like the glowing tip of her ever-present cigarette. Balancing Dorothea’s loud, brash strength with her subtle self-doubt and fear of the future seems impossible, but Bening accomplishes it with ease. Bening’s performance is most powerful during her interactions with Jamie and in their scenes together, it is clear that Bening’s talent inspires unparalleled performance in Zumann as well, whose character flows between self-assurance and uncertainty like any real teenager.
Realness is at the heart of every character in 20th Century Women: each is unapologetically human, which makes the movie timeless despite the music, costuming and references that heavily dictate its setting. In fact, the release of the film on Inauguration Day could not have been more timely—20th Century Women reflects the themes and struggles of the recent Women’s March and other feminist movements, establishing links between generations of activists, questioning “progress” and warning against the dangers of falling backwards.
The one way in which this movie disappoints is that the all-white cast fails to recognize the intersection of race with feminism. Women of color are frequently overlooked in discussions of feminism despite their inarguable influence on the movement and the development of “the modern woman.” Unfortunately, 20th Century Women fails to break this mold and deal with issues of race in relation to feminism. Still, the film has merit as a powerful story of feminine independence and strength and its themes will become even more evident—perhaps prophetic—in the coming years.
Laura Kern is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.