There are no aha moments here. To a certain degree, the lackluster of 20th Century Women causes it to lose its emotional heft.
Director Mike Mills (Beginners) gives us a family drama where the times and culture are just as significant as the magnetic characters moving around in it. 20th Century Women takes place in Santa Barbara with the 80's fast approaching. Things are a changing, and that's precisely what scares the hell out of Dorothea (Annette Bening). She smokes more than she should, and good luck finding her a man because she ain't having it. She wears her divorce as a badge of honor. Being "traditional" really has never been her thing any way. Her only child, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), knows this all too well.
His mom became a pilot and engineer, and has now set up their home as a boardinghouse that may forever be under construction. Jamie is growing up right before Dorothea's eyes and accepting this is going to be extremely difficult for her. So why not push him towards some more women to try and decipher what's going on in her son's head? These two lucky young ladies are Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie's snuggle buddy and nothing else, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a soul-searching artsy photographer who lives upstairs. They need to show him how to be a respectful, intelligent, caring , and creative young man. Dorothea is relying on their guidance since hers may not be what he needs.
As far as a story, that's as good as it gets. Unless you include the handsome handyman (Billy Crudup) being the only dude in the house, making him a hot commodity for the lady residents. But those game-changing, climactic scenes don't exist. There are no aha moments here. To a certain degree, the lackluster of 20th Century Women causes it to lose its emotional heft. We're even told how everyone's lives turn out, some being less effective than others. But for Mills, the little moments are what make the journey worthwhile.
Gerwig is sensational as a cancer survivor transformed into an aggressive feminist. She also loves to rock. The role fits her well, wearing it with absolute confidence. The flourishing puppy love between Jamie and Julie is cute. Yet you'd have to be a fool to not recognize Bening as the anchor to the dysfunction in 20th Century Women.
Bening is remarkable as a woman and mother fighting against the hands of time, and it's a battle she will not win. She deeply wants to understand her son while ditching the feeling of being invisible in his life. With each brash remark and her unrelenting cynicism, Dorothea is caught in the midst of a shifting climate she's not braced herself for. So it's only right for her voice to take us on a trip down memory lane, confronting memories that have made up the fabric of their lives.
Mills cherishes the pieces more so than the puzzle it creates once put together. 20th Century Women observes, comments, and understands its place as history sweeps by them. The film seems content on sitting in the corner quietly, noway matching the gusto Bening brings in her brown Birkenstocks.