Director Mike Mills (Beginners) tells an incredibly personal story from start to finish in his latest film 20th Century Women. At the same time the film is a coming-of-age tale, a snapshot of an era, and a deeply felt love letter to the women who influenced him, Mills’ film is nostalgic but not sentimental. Mills’ women are flawed, but endlessly celebrated, and given a rare opportunity to transcendentally live and breathe in and out of the story’s confines. Though the film takes place in a single summer in 1979, the characters are timeless, with Mills affecting the idea that these women are all of us, and none of us, and their very own thing.
20th Century Women follows Dorothea (Annette Bening), a mother in her fifties trying to raise her young teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979 Santa Barbara. Having divorced his father many years earlier, the two live on their own in what has become somewhat of a hippie boarding house. Dorothea’s tenants include Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). Abbie is an artist in her late twenties who gave up a creatively fulfilling life in New York to return home after being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Now in recovery, she faces new challenges like her ability to conceive children. William is a jack-of-all-trades – a handyman, a mechanic, and a contractor of sorts – who Dorothea turns to as a last ditch effort for male influence in the home. Also a secret boarder is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s friend since childhood who has since become beautiful, sexually experienced, and agonizingly off-limits, although she sleeps almost every night in his bed. Fearing her own abilities as a mother, Dorothea enlists Abbie and Julie’s help in making Jamie a man, and the result is nothing that she would have expected.
For many adult audience members, Mill’s characters will seem familiar. His story is also one of generations – the older generation that grew up during the depression, like Dorothea, the generation navigating adulthood, like Abbie, and the younger generation growing up and developing in the somewhat wild 1970s-80s milieu, like Jamie and Julie. Jamie reconciles his mother’s unconventional and confused mothering to the depression-era sentiments of raising children through the village. Dorothea struggles to understand the emerging punk scene, what it means to be a Talking Heads-listening “art fag”, and Abbie attempts to immortalize herself within the cultural era through art and feminism.
Mills balances the culture, art, politics, and social spheres of the era delicately within the background of his character-story. Feminism, still emerging, is every present yet undeveloped. After reading books about the female orgasm, Jamie tells Dorothea that he may be a feminist, which seems to shock his mother, honing in on the fear of change within the era that would have been questioned by anyone of the older generation, no matter how progressive they believed themselves to be (and continues to be questioned). In a single moment, we see the generational divide come alive through a wave of change. Also present are the liberal politics of Jimmy Carter, the energy crisis, the emergence of skateboarding, and that sweet spot of history when teenage alcohol consumption went virtually unregulated. Mills never pontificates, but allows the era to speak for itself through his characters impacted by the every day.
Mills’ snapshot of California in ’79 feels like reading a Joan Didion novel, with the California coast representing the freedom and wild cultural tide of the time while also imparting an unavoidable familiarity of home and suburban mundanity. The costumes are beachy and comfortable, yet retro with the muted ‘70s coloring informing the relaxed mood of each scene.
Yet, the retro tone does not deter from the film’s universality and the wide representation of these women within the entire 20th century landscape. Mills does this largely through Dorothea and Jamie’s voice-overs, relating each cultural moment to one they faced in the past or one they were yet to face in the future. The time in the film is 1979, but the characters’ stories span way beyond that and the long lasting implications of this single summer are felt like the flutter of a butterfly wing.
Nothing in the film encapsulates these defining moments, sentiments, and impacts quite like Annette Bening as Dorothea. Her character, though a well of knowledge and wisdom, is also like a child growing up alongside her son and experiencing the world again as if for the first time through his eyes. Bening plays her wide-eyed and youthful, yet with the lines of age and the years of time behind those eyes. For the film’s running time, she is our adoptive mother and friend, and gives an unforgettable performance befitting of her impressive career. Gerwig and Fanning are equally impactful, delivering their characters’ wild and youthful personas with charming abandon and strong standing presence. The indie darlings do what they do best, commanding character and story through their lively and absorbent depths. Zumann, as Jamie, completely holds his own alongside the endlessly dynamic women around him, as their stories are filtered and stimulated through his.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Watching 20th Century Women is nearly equivalent to opening up a time capsule – it is nostalgic, historic, reflective of a particular time, yet also informative of the present. It tells the story of specific people, yet also a feeling of an entire generation, our parents’ generation and their parents’ generation. Even if you did not live any of these lives, Mills allows you to feel as if you did, as if you were him growing up in the strong presence of women that taught him to feel, question, and live in the constantly changing world. His incredible ensemble works like a syncopated quilt with Bening at the helm as the fearless and shining leader.