Originally published on January 30, 2017. 20th Century Women is now available on Amazon Prime’s instant streaming service.
Overview: In 1979 Santa Barbara, single mother Dorothea struggles to raise her son Jaime and seeks the help of two young women. A24; 2016; Rated R; 118 minutes.
Mama Can’t Buy You Love: Director and writer Mike Mills, recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, has more than proven his mastery of incorporating personal yet universal themes in his work. Mike Mills’ most recent feature, Beginners (2010) was simple yet profound, heartbreaking yet hopeful, and creatively crafted. 20th Century Women certainly feels larger, and while in some ways it is a more adventurous endeavor, it is no less personal and no less darkly funny.
At the center of 20th Century Women is the relationship between Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and the young women, Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig) that Dorothea encourages to help her connect with and understand him. Dorothea, despite vouching for his agency and volition, tries to instigate his coming of age, help her son come into his own as a man without the presence of his father.
Mills has noted that the film is to some extent autobiographical, a testament to his experiences learning to navigate the world as a man while being raised primarily by his mother and sisters, and uses a specific period of American history to enhance what is a largely universal struggle to connect with loved one’s that are so completely of generations other than one’s own.
We Are Family: When the story begins, Jamie and Dorothea’s makeshift family is more or less formed. Abbie and William (Billy Crudup) rent rooms in Dorothea’s home (perpetually under construction) and Julie is Jamie’s childhood friend and confidante. We meet these characters in the midst of their relationships, bypassing any expositional introductions. The context and history of the characters and their relationships must be discerned through the puzzle pieces of their interactions. William and Dorothea’s romantic history, Abbie’s cervical cancer, Julie’s relationship with her mother, are all displayed slowly, lending the characters and their interactions an authenticity.
Jamie and his mother speak together in the opening voiceover, and all the characters contribute throughout, speaking about each other, about themselves, providing more empirical exposition as well as tackling themes of self-expression and perception. As he did in Beginners, Mills outlines the historical events that shaped each character, cleverly and effectively giving the characters’ mindsets a historical and cultural context. Generally spoken by either Jamie or Dorothea, character’s biographies are combined with historical photographs and video footage: of New York City’s underground music scene, of World War II, of the atom bomb. It’s quick and efficient, and allows for interpersonal interactions to focus first and foremost on characterization. There is a frankness and simplicity to the dialogue, a sweetness in the way characters snap at and mock each other in a way only family and friends can. And overall, this film is about these connections and relationships.
Bening’s Dorothea encapsulates the complex combination of warmth, exhaustion, and sense of futility of motherhood, as well as the hope and positivity she maintains regardless of this futility. She is somewhat flighty, strange, and persistently social, adventurous and withdrawn in turn. Gerwig is in her element as Abbie, and the character feels truthfully unique and complicated. Julie, as well, is confident but insecure, naïve and outspoken. All the performances, particularly of the three titular 20th century women are nuanced and sensitive, and the film focuses almost equally on all members of its main cast, possibly to a fault.
There are some points of the film that feel disjointed, as one scene transitions to the next, this film can sometimes feel like a series of vignettes. This film is moreso an exploration of a theme and the interpersonal relationship of its main characters than a concrete narrative. It attempts to tackle a lot, themes of gender, sexuality, love, and generational divide, and in its admirable commitment to its overarching themes and characters sometimes loses the thread of its plot.
Time Passages: “She grew up during the Depression,” Jamie says on numerous occasions, his shorthand explanation for all the ways Dorothea’s generation is different from his own. Jamie describes his mother the way he views her, as his mother and as her own woman. Her past, her dreams, her style, he describes in the context of World War II, the Depression. He tries to understand her, to describe her, and his quiet frustration showing in their interactions. Dorothea, in voiceover, does the same. Similarly frustrated, she describes Jamie’s generation in the context of the Vietnam War, protests, computers, his generation’s boredom.
1979 serves as a cultural divider that separates Jamie (and in many ways Julie and Abbie) from Dorothea, and gives a specific context and specificity to a universal divide between parent and child. “Can’t things just be pretty?” Jamie says, as Abbie and Julie explain the intentional ugliness and grime of grunge music to someone who lived through the Depression, who longs for simplicity and beauty. The time period, while integral to the story, is rarely distracting. Conservative choices in costuming, architecture, cars, and technology are all well-handled, and keep this movie from feeling like a period piece, a movie about the ’70s. Billy Crudup’s William, with his free love, hippie vibe and sexual openness, is possibly the character most particular to the time period. He is, however, humorous even in the universe of the film, lovingly mocked by Abbie and Dorothea. His meditation and musings on stardust and the human connection to nature are sweet rather than chastised, not a biting parody so much as simply dated.
While 1979 was so uniquely different than today, and different from the generation preceding it, the struggle to completely understand one’s parents and cross the generational divide is unavoidable but futile, painful yet integral to the human experience. This is a story bursting at the seams, connected so strongly to the past and future that it fosters yearning to see more of its characters and their relationships. A yearning to see more, rather than less, of the characters, is a strength of this film, rather than a weakness.
This, in a way, leads to the strange feel of the epilogue, which feels somewhat unearned. Dorothea describes her own death, and moments of her later life are shown, visual epilogue narrated by Jamie. William, Abbie and Julie describe their own futures, in a way that feels, while visually beautiful, rather gratuitous; the story already extends into the future by virtue of the specificity of its time period. To assign finality to its character seems incongruous with the rest of the film and the way it defies simple resolution.
Overall: There is a continuity to 20th Century Women that extends its story into the present day. Those who were approaching adolescence in 1979 are, in 2017, the same age as Dorothea, and likely struggling to connect with their own children in the same way she did. I couldn’t help but think of my relationship with my own parents, who were both young teenagers in 1979, and their relationships with their parents, who were so distinctly of a different age. The struggle to understand the generations other than one’s own is cyclical and never-ending. Despite sometimes feeling aimless or disjointed, 20th Century Women, in its writing and characters, is a personal exploration of this theme. Rooted in American history, it shines in its characters and the authenticity of their interactions and relationships.
Featured Image: A24