Movie Review: “20th Century Women”

20th Century Women

“20th Century Women” – a film review by Gary Chew

What we’ve got here in this new film by Berkeley-born Mike Miles is a 55-year-old woman confronting the cultural tsunami of the late Seventies. Fortunately, since her foibles take place in Santa Barbara by the sea, the use of the word “tsunami” is a mere metaphor to describe 20th Century Women.

20th Century Women BeningAnnette Bening is Dorothea. She’s a longtime single mom who seems to make ends meet by routinely watching the stock market with her 15-year-old son Jamie, played by Lucas Jade Zumann. Dorothea also rents out space in her neat, old and rather large Santa Barbara home to a early-on punk artist called Abbie. Down from Sacramento, Greta Gerwig does the Abbie role with dyed hair that appears to be pretty much purple but kind of red, too. Her haircut is really awful, too. But Greta’s face looks classy even if she might be wearing a gunny sack. Nothing seems to bother Gerwig regarding what character she plays.

Dorothea is much like Hal, who was the gay, widower father in Mike Miles’ really super movie of 2010 called Beginners. (Christopher Plummer bold us over in that part.) No, Dorothea is straight, but doesn’t have a gentlemen friend. She abides at her residence being a pretty hip gal for her age, but still rather jolted by all the things going on with her son and the 17-year-old neighborhood girl named Julie who is Jamie’s very best of buds. The seemingly forever nubile Elle Fanning does that character.

20th Century WomenJulie isn’t a virgin, but she doesn’t do it with Jamie, even though she routinely sneaks to Jamie’s house and sleeps over with him. Julie believes that the two of them are way too far gone at being super pals for sex. Jamie could probably go with changing that rule, but he’s not in a good position to push back on Julie with it. There is help afoot, however.

Meanwhile, in another part of Dorothea’s house, in fact, all around Dorothea’s digs, there’s William.  And who could play William better than Billy Crudup? (He’s also now showing in Jackie?) William has a deal with Dorothea: I’ll re-do the interior of your house, if you give me free rent. (Such a deal for both.) So, people who live in Dorothea’s home aren’t blood kin, except for her and Jamie. But … and this is the neat part of 20th Century Women … this bunch acts like family, including Sleepover Julie.

20th Century WomenThere’s an aimlessness to Miles’ picture, although it’s a sweet aimlessness: you like his characters and can readily identify with that which each of them faces in those (of course) differing ways. There’s but a smidge of fisticuffs in one scene when Abbie gets riled at a rowdy bar, and Jamie get punched out at school a bit for saying wise things to a slightly older boy about a tryst the older student had with a girl. That’s so unlike most movies released every week. Taking a breather from cars flip-flopping and people swinging through the air while firing automatic weapons is good; they make me sleepy. Violence and hostility are surely things we can get anytime simply by turning on a news or movie channel. Reality and unreality seem to merge.

Bening is great and appears quite comfortable playing a slightly harried, but good, smart woman trying to make better sense of her life. Being a good mother is important, despite the fact Dorothea is not as square as younger folks who hang out at her place might opine.

The film finishes in voice-over telling you the lives lived by these people seen in 20th Century Women don’t necessarily turn out as an audience watching in the theater might like. But there’s one thing that’s clearly messaged for all to see, at least it was the case for moi: Santa Barbara, California looks like one heck of a place to live whether it’s 1979 or 2017. It’s got it’s own ocean … the biggest one on earth!

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Gary Chew
Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.