Annette Bening may not have been Oscar-nominated for her turn as Dorothea Fields in 20th Century Women, but it’s rare to find an ensemble movie that hangs more on one actor. Even as the film purports to follow the life education of her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), reared in 1979 Santa Barbara by three generations of women, Dorothea is both the source and recipient of the film’s greatest adoration.
Bening has to earn every last bit of it. In her 30-year film career, she’s long been an expert at mining the supporting roles of the mother and the wife, bringing the humanity out of tertiary characters who stand beside Michael Douglas, or behind Harrison Ford, or in the way of Kevin Spacey. Rarely, though, has a movie given such unassuming prominence to one of her quintessentially driven, well-meaning characters the way Mike Mills’ new film does. (Dorothea is based partially on his own mother.) Scene after scene, 20th Century Women asks Bening to move mountains without breaking a sweat, to make a quiet confession sting or a knowing retort really linger. “I’m not all men; I’m just me,” Jamie responds when she puts forward the plot-inciting idea of taking de facto feminism lessons from their housemate Abbie (Greta Gerwing) and his teenage friend Julie (Elle Fanning). Dorothea cocks her head sideways, looks at him, through him, and into the future. “Well, yes and no.”
The hook of Mills’ film is Jamie coming of age, but his mother is the one facing evolution, or more precisely, the realization that her evolution is perhaps overdue and may no longer be so possible. We begin looking through Jamie too, and increasingly at Dorothea for answers about her life and the era they find themselves in. Mills’ portrait of a teenager raised by a single California mother in the ‘70s joins a few other interesting 21st century reflections: the likes of The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and Almost Famous (2001). Those accounts likewise stem from an artist’s real-life experience, graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and director Cameron Crowe respectively. While the mothers in Almost Famous and The Diary of a Teenage Girl are also struggling with their isolation and fighting to make sense of the times, these films ultimately stage the mothers as antagonists. They’re holding the children back from discovering adulthood and the movies’ hearts are with the kids. We’re pretty convinced William Miller should be allowed to listen to Bookends, no matter how blank and stoned Simon & Garfunkel appear on the cover. In a far riskier point-of-view illusion, The Diary of a Teenage Girl can briefly convince us 15-year-old Minnie Goetze has every right to sleep with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend.
Looked at with little charity, all these movies simply exhort what an interesting time the 1970s were to be a white teenager in the middle class, what a trip to be raised with such non-traditional people around. Billy Crudup as your rock ‘n’ roll idol in Almost Famous, Billy Crudup as your handyman in 20th Century Women. But Mills’ new film endeavors to say something more existential than narratively sound — not that the single parent imprinted on the child in one certain, quirky way, but that there is no certain way. That would be too limiting for a proper tribute to the matriarch. It makes Mills’ movie feel as wide open as the Pacific coastline, and at times very, very slow.
In the director’s’ clear, but quiet post-modern style — defined by a juxtaposition of omniscient voiceover and still photographs — he fills the audience in on Dorothea’s biography, which encompasses much of the women’s movement from the previous half-century. She’s an emblematic figure of the generation between suffragettes and the Second Wave. She trained to fly aircraft in WWII but never got the chance, an “Amelia Earhart feminist” Mills has described her in interviews. She’s separated from Jamie’s father, and that’s all the film cares to say about that. She’s one of very few women to make a career in the field of technical drafting. When Jamie is frustrated with her intentional and creative parenting, he offers to his ersatz family: “She’s from the [Great] Depression.” On a macro-level, it explains why she worries about the state of the world, but in a more implicit sense, he’s trying to get at why she cares so much. Work is a virtue for Dorothea. Bening’s character even dresses a bit like a beach-ready Rosie the Riveter. This characterization approach is nearly identical for what Mills did for father and son in his 2009 film Beginners. And while it may be a shortcut, it does wonders for Dorothea. She gets more black and white photographs in her life reel than anyone else in the film; she’s seen more.
But in 1979, “nothing means anything anymore,” she says. America is on the brink of rapid change, and perhaps more importantly, all future change will be rapid. Punk music is booming, but everything else seems in a hurry to die: the spirit of the ‘60s, New Deal optimism, the vitality of a middle class not confined to suburbs. She’s surrounded by younger people who think they know more than her and are eager to discuss it. There are the teenagers (Julie and Jamie) who believe this by virtue of their age and a young adult in Abbie who has a larger, political vocabulary for expressing less worldliness. Dorothea appears to hail from a generation with less self-consciousness and more … you could call it aplomb or you could call it ability for denial. But her obstinance, her lack of self-awareness is part of the pleasure of watching this story with 40 years’ distance. Dorothea acting as an incredibly self-sufficient single mother in 1979 looks like a deeply political choice, but the character doesn’t see it that way. She’s just pressing on. Much of this movie is the teenagers looking at the older woman and demanding she interrogate herself about what she wants. “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed,” Dorothea fires back.
Where 20th Century Women has taken flak (and it hasn’t taken too much), it’s for being obvious. There are probably two too many scenes of ill-fitting adults trying out the life of underground Santa Barbara clubs, and a few too many still photos of The Ramones and the like. Mills is determined to show us that his characters lived alongside and inside what we now consider iconography. He perhaps over-stresses that all of life is context. But that critical moment where a mother is no longer part of the latest cultural context could be the most interesting of her life, where she might try to radically alter her internal or external life. Similarly, a person out of their time is by far the most beautiful part of Beginners, wherein an approximation of Mills’ newly out, 75-year-old father, played by Christopher Plummer, changes his wardrobe and writes personal ads to fit in with gay men 30 and 40 years his junior. It’s bold and touching — a person trying his very best to be happy after a point at which most people have given that up. Dorothea is faced with a similar decision three decades earlier, whether to self-reflect in the first place.
After a film’s worth of effort in studying Dorothea, her life defies summation for Jamie’s future-seeing narrator: “I’ll try to explain to [my son] what his grandmother was like, but it will be impossible.”
It’s at this last moment that Mills tips his hand to show the height of his task. Every parent is ultimately unknowable to the child. From every angle at which the child examines her, his own life is in the way, blocking objectivity. Even if Jamie or Mills obsesses to recall every outward detail of Dorothea — the Salem cigarettes, the overly Socratic dinner parties, tracking daily stock fluctuations in the newspaper — he’s charged with removing himself from the frame. It’s bizarre to consider a piece of autobiography selfless, but Mills pulls off the bait and switch. His filmic memory finally says of a mother: There was so much more to you than me.