“I think I’m a feminist,” Jamie Fields, the young male protagonist of 20th Century Women played by Lucas Jade Zumann, says to his mother Dorothea. It’s easy to see in Annette Bening’s performance that she’s resisting a major eye roll with all of her will as her son finishes reading Susan Lydon’s essay “The Politics of Orgasm” in an amusing scene between the two. But that quote feels like something that probably came out of director Mike Mills’ mouth at some point or another while making this movie, a good but ultimately bloated exploration of a young man and the four people who surround him on a daily basis.
The four are comprised of three women and a man: Dorothea, a mid-50s woman trying to raise her son; William (Billy Crudup), a mechanic who lives with the bunch and sleeps with lines of women after having his heart broken; and the two girls that Dorothea enlists to help her raise her son—Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited photographer living with the bunch, and Julie (Elle Fanning), their teenage neighbor that Jamie has a crush on.
Mills shifts between all of these characters as he pleases, typically focusing on Jamie and Dorothea, but toying with all five of them through memory and narration. Cutting between archival footage of historical moments, classic films, meaningful objects framed neatly, and the film itself is something he’s done before, and it works here again. There’s a nostalgic fetishism at play that can be grating to certain viewers, not in the film’s dedication to fitting into the period in the least showy manner possible, but in the way that Mills grasps at every cultural reference possible. How many times can you bring up Talking Heads in a movie or utilize the same sped-up stereoscopic effects most vividly used in Věra Chytilová’s Daisies until they mean nothing?
If I may be so bold, at times Mills’ filmmaking feels like what you’d get if Wes Anderson were forced to work with more restraint and ended up with the breeziness of one of Sofia Coppola’s films. Unlike Coppola though, Mills doesn’t quite hone in on one particular thing. His bouncing between characters and memories leads to a ton of individually stellar scenes—a dinner conversation about normalizing the word “menstruation” among them—that sometimes feel disjointed and aimless in the grand scheme of things. The inevitable climax between mother and son caught in turmoil should feel like more than something to shrug off, but there’s too many asides for this makeshift family that draw away from their story for the sake of exploring smaller things.
Each and every performer in 20th Century Women manages to bring something special to even the least interesting lines that Mills provides them, with Bening, Gerwig, and Fanning standing out as the title might imply. If, as the press notes read, the film is meant to be about the “female experience of America as the last century sped towards the finish line in crisis mode,” then Mills doesn’t do his characters justice. He crafts three individually interesting women—each with memories, experiences, and passions of their very own—and filters them through a male lens, a male protagonist, and how they relate to him.
Any time the women have moments on their own (you’ll be hard-pressed to find another film by a man that passes the Bechdel test so easily this year), it reminds us that the film can be better than a frustrating will-they-or-won’t-they subplot between two teens who could have a beautiful friendship if the director wasn’t so busy trying to deal with romantic and sexual feelings between them. But for all its inconsistencies, there’s also something wonderfully personal and effective about the way Mills lets the simple moments play out between two people; a light scratch on the back and reading the changes in stock prices can be as beautiful as sharing a dance to an old tune with someone who’s helping fill that bit of loneliness in your life.
20th Century Women releases in NY/LA theaters on December 25th and expands later.
Directed by Mike Mills; written by Mike Mills; starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup; 118 minutes.