20th Century Women or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Raise a Male Feminist (okay, I made that second part up) is the best film yet from director Mike Mills. He gets some of the best performances out of this impressive group of actors and is not quite the “Annette Bening show” that some reviews praise it as. That doesn’t mean she isn’t the best actress of the bunch, it’s just that everyone keeps up with her. However outstanding the cast is, unfortunately, it’s really the only thing 20th Century Women has going for it.
The film takes place in the summer of 1979 and totally whiffs its attempt to create a nostalgic sense of time and space. Several historical montages use archive footage to really drive the point home that these times they are a changin’. However, if the film hadn’t told me when it took place, I might have just assumed it was about a bunch of modern SoCal hipsters. Because the nostalgia never sets in, you start to resent the montages each time a new one starts. It doesn’t help they’re accompanied by narration that sounds as bad as Harrison Ford’s original voiceover for Blade Runner, which, if you’ve never heard it, is another way of saying “Yikes!”
Just like Beginners, Mills’ 2009 companion film, the story of 20th Century Women is intentionally scattered and uneventful—which isn’t to say it’s necessarily bad. It begins with Dorothea (Bening), a boardinghouse landlord and single mother, who enlists two younger women to help teach her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), about manhood. Punk-rock photographer, Abbie, (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend, Julie, (Elle Fanning) try their best but precisely what you imagine would happen…well, happens. Boundaries are pushed, and emotions are emoted. There’s another man in the picture, William (Billy Crudup), but his traditionally “manly” hobbies disinterests Jamie.
That might sound like more plot than it really is. 20th Century Women is only about its outstanding performances; not the characters but the actual performances by the actors. The initial set-up is only there because the actors need something to do. From Gerwig to Crudup, every single actor knocks their performances out of the park—even improving some of the weak material they’re working with. None of these characters sound like they could ever be real people, but the actors playing them convince us that, if these cartoons were real people, this is what they might be like.
Of course, no one else is quite as good as Bening. She fills the caricature she’s playing with decades of life experiences, and you truly feel it. It’s really no surprise. Churning out incredible performances, especially in films that aren’t always great, is kind of what Bening does.
I have a hard time blaming actors for bad voiceover work, because the technical logistics must be a nightmare, but the on-camera performances more than made up for it, anyway. I only wish the rest of the film had been as good as the actors, especially how well they did with so little to go from.
Grade = B