Stories about women as told by men get a bad rap these days—the thinking is that the last thing we need is to have our experience mansplained to us. But there’s danger in applying that logic across the board: Does it mean that women shouldn’t be allowed to try to peer into the minds of men, either? Worse yet, it amounts to a distrust of a mode of thinking that has served the world of art pretty well for centuries: the sympathetic imagination.
With 20th Century Women, Mike Mills tells, in some fashion, the story of his own coming-of-age in late-1970s Santa Barbara, focusing largely on a mother, Annette Bening’s Dorothea, who’s raising a son on her own, Lucas Jade Zumann’s Jamie. The picture is a companion piece to Mills’ 2010 Beginners, also semi-autobiographical, about an elderly dad (played by Christopher Plummer, in a role that won him an Oscar for best supporting actor) who reveals to his son that he has terminal cancer, and that he’s gay. Both films are about the ways adult children come to understand their parents as people, but 20th Century Women is the stronger of the two: The Mike Mills touches—vintage-photo and news-clip montages, matter-of-fact explanatory voice-overs— are all there. But this picture has a more melancholy, resonant edge. And as with Beginners, there’s an extraordinary performance at its heart: Bening is terrific, getting at the way middle-aged loneliness and contentment can be so intermingled that it’s almost impossible to tell which is which.
Dorothea is raising Jamie in a ramshackle Victorian house that’s under constant renovation. She takes in boarders, though they’re never called that—they’re more like ad hoc family members. Billy Crudup’s William is a hippie handyman who’s helping Dorothea get the house in shape, though he also becomes an important confidant. Greta Gerwig’s Abbie is a young photographer who’s just recovering from a bout of cervical cancer, and unsure about how the illness will affect her future. Elle Fanning’s Julie is Jamie’s closest friend—he has a deep, unrequited crush on her—and though she doesn’t live in the house, she sneaks into it often to cuddle with Jamie in his bed. Understandably, this confuses him.
Dorothea and Jamie have always been close, and as he hits adolescence, she begins to wonder if they’re not too close. Dorothea never does anything the conventional way: Her wardrobe is a mix of comfortable-looking Katharine Hepburn-style trousers and short, floaty blouses that may be either vintage or just things she’s held onto for ages. She wears Birkenstocks and red lipstick, usually together. She smokes Salems because, as Jamie explains in a voiceover, she says they’re “healthier.” Of course, that particular habit isn’t unconventional at all. It’s left over from the days when everybody used to smoke, Dorothea says somewhat wistfully, because it looked “glamorous.”
Dorothea is always scrutinizing her son, perhaps too much. And so she decides to step back and let Abbie and Julie co-raise him, figuring they’ll be able to teach him things about the world that she can’t. This is an interesting approach to parenting, and it ends up working, sort of. It also gets Jamie thinking more about his mother’s life, and wondering about her loneliness. (She dates, but never sticks with anyone for long.) He begins to ask her probing questions about her feelings, based on his reading of feminist theory—Julie and Abbie help out in that area. Dorothea shrinks from his questions, partly, perhaps, because she feels they’re an inappropriate invasion of her privacy. But mostly, maybe, she just doesn’t know how to answer them.
Bening walks this delicate line with the skill of a beatnik ballerina. Dorothea, Jamie tells us in one of the movie’s numerous voiceovers, was born in 1924. As forward-thinking as she is—and she has always worked for a living, as a draftsperson—she was part of a generation of women who were wary of calling themselves feminists, even though they often qualified as such. Dorothea doesn’t “need” a man, but her aloneness isn’t a perfect state, either. With both her girlish laughter and her furrowed-brow anxiety, which announces itself with the frown lines that haunt us all as we age, Bening captures that state of being perfectly. Mills deserves credit here, too, for daring to wonder what this magnificent character was thinking and feeling in the first place.