Twentieth Century Woman, in cinemas at the moment, is ostensibly a coming of age story about the son (Lucas Jade Zumann) of a single mother (Annette Bening) who share their bo-ho home in 1970s Santa Barbara California with lodgers whose rent helps to pay for the refurbishment of the house. The lodgers are a couple of young women (Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) and a guy ( Billy Crudup) who seems to work as a handy-man but in that very 1970s way has other interesting stuff going on in his life too.
There’s no spoiler alert in saying that the coming of age discoveries are not only focused on the teenage son but on everyone who lives in this cheerfully ramshackle house together. Director is Mike Mills who clearly has an eye for human exchanges and how the children in family relationships often outrank the parents in terms of coming to terms with some of the complexities of life. He directed Beginner,s which starred Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor as a father and son who navigate the dad’s coming out in his 70s.
My own son came to see the film with me last week and it was interesting to get that cross-generational view on a cross-generational film.
Now read this carefully. The lead character in Twentieth Century Women is roughly the age that my mum would have been at the time when the film was set (1970’s) and Annette Bening, who plays her , is roughly my age now. The character who plays her son is more or less the age that my son is now. And the young woman who is the special friend of the son is more or less the age that I was at the time of the film in the 1970s. It’s complicated but let’s just say that I felt a connection with this film.
My viewpoint of the story flipped between the different time zones and although we lived in the suburbs of London rather than the sunnier Santa Barbara where the film was set, I began to understand what it might have been like to have been a middle aged woman (as my mum was) at that time in high-post-hippy-burgeoning-feminism 1979. I think that it must have been complicated.
This was a generation who had come of age during the Second World War when rules were rules and generally women stuck to those rules and didn’t have their ambitions set too high in life in terms of achieving a career and a separate identity.
Even if those women who were reaching their 50s during the 1970s started to reach some sort of equanimity with the idea of feminism, their never-had-it-so- good daughters (like me) came crashing along and banged on about women’s rights and equality and wanting what the boys had in a very loud and assured way. Which must again have been very complicated indeed. My cohort of young women were beginning to achieve some of the ambitions that our mums wouldn’t even have dreamt about – like going to university, having sex before we were married, living with our boyfriends and having jobs which had prospects, achieving positions which had recognition.
Being a woman in your 50s now feels as if it might be a bit easier than it was for my mum’s generation. When they were reaching their mid 50s there was a sense that they were out of the game, too old to be taken very seriously and certainly not continuing to be excited about being stylish, even sexual as our generation does at the same age.
It’s not all easy being a 50-something (or older) woman. We know that. There are still assumptions about what you are and where you might belong and some women do begin to feel invisible at this point in their lives. Nonetheless it does feel as if we can now take hold of our lives and our identities if we choose to.
I wonder if a film like this would even have been thought worth making in the 1970s. Whether a story about an older woman would have been “box office”. And Annette Bening does a great job of it all. She looks beautiful, wrinkled, has a bit of a tummy on her. She’s funny, thoughtful and feels like a real woman in her 50s and not a filmic version of what they think we should look like.
So go. See the film. It’s not action-packed. It’s slow and measured and it makes you laugh and it makes you cry. And it makes you glad to be a 50-something now rather than when our mums were doing it.