A young man sees the world from a specific point of view. Though women may surround him — women who raise him, teach him, love him and confuse him — he will never be able to fully see the world through their eyes. He tries and comes closer than most, but, in the end, the young man will still be faced with the same question that plagued Sigmund Freud: What do women want?
The year is 1979 and the young man in question is 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), is 55 and trying to raise her son to be a good man. And though she is doing it without a father figure, she isn’t doing it alone. She has Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a renter and art school graduate; Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s closest friend and crush; and William (Billy Crudup), an ex-hippie handyman who is helping Dorothea restore her turn-of-the-century Santa Barbara house.
But the help Dorothea gets is not necessarily the help she expected or possibly wants. For the purpose of education, Abbie gives Jamie a stack of books on how to properly treat a clitoris — valuable information that will serve Jamie well in two or three years, but not yet. All this overabundance of information does is confuse Jamie and further separate him from his peers. Dorothea is concerned this won’t help Jamie become a good man, but Abbie disagrees. If he doesn’t learn it from her, he’ll find out from his 15-year-old mates. And what would that produce? Certainly nothing productive.
Dorothea turns to the only man in her life, William, to possibly instill some wisdom into Jamie, but William has spent his life living on the margins, and can no longer articulate or communicate on any level above a deep connection. At one point Dorothea asks him, “You don’t have any funny lines do you?” William fails to respond.
Not that William is a total dullard; he just isn’t what Dorothea or Jamie recognizes as a good — or typical — man. Is Jimmy Carter that man? Decisive and assertive, President Carter delivers his “crisis of confidence” speech on the TV and all watch with rapt attention. Dorothea, in particular, is moved by the speech, but what matters most is that the speech is seared into Jamie’s brain. This is his story, and it is through his eyes and his thoughts that we experience these 20th-century women.
Written and directed by Mike Mills, 20th Century Women is an ode to the mother and sister who raised him. As a narrator, Jamie is awarded the intimate knowledge of those around him and he narrates aspects of their lives from cradle to grave. Mills used a similar trick in his previous film, Beginners — a film about a father coming out to his son late in life — and it’s an effective trick even if it’s one that seems to strain for profundity.
What works best is how Jamie considers these women, particularly Julie, whom he has a great deal of longing for. Though Julie spends practically every night with Jamie, they never progress beyond the stage of friends. Jamie wants to, but Julie is afraid that sex will damage their arrangement. She is not celibate and tells Jamie about her sexual encounters, which further frustrates Jamie. Most men never get over this. Some pervert their frustration as they grow older and become dangerous characters. Others meditate on it and come to some form of conclusion. Mills is in the latter category and with a simple conclusion: Julie is who she is.
Though there isn’t much story to speak of in 20th Century Women there are plenty of observations, enough to hold your attention. It also helps to have performances this good. Bening shines, Gerwig is life incarnate and Fanning continues to beam as a young performer who is wise beyond her years. They are the reason it’s 20th Century Women and not Jamie’s Story. He may be the watcher, but they are the reason we watch.