The best thing about Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women is a title that immediately tells us two things: 1) Its sexual politics are dated, and 2) its story will focus on outmoded cultural ideals. This is the same erroneous basis of Millennial social protest, which always imitates past examples.
The worst thing about 20th Century Women is that it indeed looks at women through an archaic social lens — the peculiar Obama-era combination of guilt and arrogance that has been widely accepted without thinking, as last week’s unfocussed pink-hat parades demonstrated.
In 20th Century Women, Dorothea (Annette Bening), a 55-year-old widow from Santa Barbara, Calif., raises her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), amid the company of several lodgers in her big ramshackle house: two wayward young women (Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) and a sexy but nonthreatening man (Billy Crudup). The house, a Queen Anne antique that may as well be a social-justice museum, is the site of Dorothea’s social experiment — a homegrown conversion-therapy camp. Each of these idiosyncratic, slightly damaged individuals presents Jamie with life lessons (on menarche, abortion, menopause, masculine aggression) that are like a camp curriculum. This is no mere coming-of-age tale; Mills could also have titled his tearjerker “How to Build a Male Feminist.”
Bening’s Dorothea is a post–Betty Friedan, post–Gloria Steinem, post–Germaine Greer version of the Archie comics’ pedant, Miss Grundy. (Mills regularly digresses into anecdotes from the Seventies feminist bible Sisterhood Is Powerful.) Always wearing flowered blouses, with tousled hair and age-lined face and neck, Dorothea is Everymom, but with fascinating actorly props (primarily Bening’s throaty delivery). It’s a master class in laid-back dominance, a Ms. magazine cartoon contrived of equal parts maternal nostalgia and white career-woman regret. I admire Bening’s subtlety: She limits Dorothea’s arrogance to the delicate control she exerts over her tenants and the emotional sway she holds over her son (she salts their relationship with condescension by referring to him as “kid”). But I don’t admire Mills’s maudlin shift when nostalgia for Mom turns into sanctification of the sacrifices that feminist standard-bearers claim all females shared.
Another terrible thing about 20th Century Women is Mills’s indie-movie “cleverness”: It presents the “correct” attitudes toward dating, gynecology, and even mourning, during Dorothea’s end-of-life montage. Most offensive is the way Mills mixes his cultural recall with his social attitude. The terrific music track features key ’70s New Wave music: The Clash’s “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” Devo’s “Gut Feeling,” and the Talking Heads’ “Drugs.” Especially vexing is the inclusion of Talking Heads’ “Don’t Worry About the Government.” Mills doesn’t understand that the song isn’t just hip nostalgia; one listens past David Byrne’s citizen-eunuch irony to hear an expression of the patriotic faith we’ve since lost. Mills, unfortunately, gives us only the loss, but the song’s willed innocence outclasses Mills’s political presumptions.
20th Century Women is really a politically correct emotional biography of that 21st-century anomaly: a non-gender-specific male.
Mills proves he’s an unrepentant attitude-hustler (as in Beginners, his patronizing gay-sympathy film) with the character of handyman lothario William, played with the same mastery that Bening brings to Dorothea. Crudup’s William roosters through the house, studly yet benign. This male cartoon disguises the misandry that is beneath the film’s surface — the sometimes appropriate, inconsolable resentment women can hold toward men. That’s what fueled many of the early-Seventies protests: Men often don’t treat women well, and they often don’t treat men well either. During last weekend’s global hysteria, that truth was never honestly expressed.
But Mills ignores the complexity of heterosexual relations by dishing up the oxymoron of “male feminists.” He panders rather than admit the mea culpas of sympathetic males. Those passions were wittily expressed in “Whip Appeal,” the 1989 song by the R&B singer Babyface; better than the out-of-context pop music Mills uses, it combined male awareness of feminism with a guy’s erotic desperation.
Mills is no Babyface (he’s just “whipped”). Neither is he Fellini or Bergman, artists whose woman-fixated movies were never as unsensual as this visually cluttered yet bland scrapbook of old attitudes. Mills also lacks genuine familial instincts such as Brazilian director Anna Muylaert brought to the parenting drama Don’t Call Me Son. Instead, all Mills provides is the sentimental nostalgia of a boy who misses his mom, and he inflates that into an old-fashioned feminist diatribe. Bening’s Dorothea looms over this movie like a scene-stealing diva or a heterosexual version of Auntie Mame. Yet Mills neglects what should logically be Jamie’s ambivalent, gay response to her. 20th Century Women is really a politically correct emotional biography of that 21st-century anomaly: a non-gender-specific male.
Despite her impressive performance, Bening was not nominated for an Academy Award this week. That’s inconsequential, but let’s still note the irony of Meryl Streep’s 20th Oscar nomination for another tricked-up performance in Florence Foster Jenkins — an abominable film. No matter how many default nominations Streep receives, she is truly the most overrated actress in film history. Having closed in on Bette Davis’s and Katharine Hepburn’s combined Oscar nominations (without ever equaling their emotional impact or achieving their cultural relevance), Streep is exposed as a phenomenon from an era that, like the Oscars itself, is steadily losing the capacity for artistic discrimination. She’s always nominated for her celebrity, built on the myth that her gift for mimicry is the same as great acting.
Who can deny that nominating Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins is little more than Left Hollywood’s congratulation for her Hillary-inspired attacks on President Trump? Such pettiness will probably result in Streep winning her fourth Oscar, so that the hordes who marched last weekend (in a collective-unconscious attempt to once again reclaim the election for Hillary Clinton) can turn the Oscar referendum into another tantrum, once again asserting their juvenile resentment. Streep has given only a handful of performances as effective as Bening’s Dorothea, but you must look past Mills’s sanctimony to appreciate that fact.
Extra Oscar note: It was horrible to hear a fatuous TV talking head boast that “a record six black performers were nominated for Academy Awards.” After barfing, my query was: “Is this because they were good or because they were black?” The mainstream media and the Motion Picture Academy have done us a disservice by bowing to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign that intimidated so many to make sure that black performers were nominated for awards. As a result, no one can be sure that this year’s nominations were based on excellence rather than pressure to conform to PC dictates. After the welcome end of the Obama era, Hollywood is left confused.