What a rich movie!—adolescence, parent-child relationships, womanhood, manhood, family support, love, sadness, grief, American culture—and delivering this feast through imaginative film technique. Like The Big Chill, relationships, individual states of being, and personal conversations form the core of Mike Mills 20th Century Women (loosely based on his own life). The title pertains to the 15-year-old protagonist Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann’s) world of older women guiding him—his 55-year-old mother Dorothea (Annette Benning), his 17-year-old closest friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and the 24-year-old tenant in the house Abbie (Greta Gerwig). But the film is also about 20th-century men—and in both cases American women and men—for our particular culture and history have shaped us. The movie integrates old film reels, TV clips, photos, memorabilia, and magazine illustrations to set various eras: Dorothea’s ’30s and ’40s (Depression and WWII), William’s ’60s (hippie, commune days), and the film’s 1979 period with the Talking Heads and other clashing bands in the soundtrack, which includes in contrast Dorothea’s mellow music of the past.
The film deftly handles bringing us instantly into the souls of all the characters through changing voice overs—Dorothea saying what giving birth to Jamie meant to her, Jamie saying the same from his viewpoint, and the other characters, all of whom live in Dorothea’s crumbling, Santa Barbara mansion, adding their life stories and perspectives at appropriate times. While these voice overs educate us about the characters—in the same fast staccato tempo of the film clips—we watch present-day action (teens careening wildly in a bar or in a moonlit park) interchanging with the flashback segments.
This periodic, fast-clicking of images mirrors a camera shutter, and the fast motion gives the film a virtual component, a contemporary, digitally manipulated look. Car scenes driving California’s coastal road speed up like a video game, with psychedelic colors tinging the landscape. Julie’s motif of climbing up the house’s scaffolding to sneak into Jamie’s room each night, and then down the scaffolding the next morning, has the same fast-motion, computerized look. Delightfully, we are given snapshot epilogues for each character when the film ends, generally positive outcomes, or as positive as “sad life” can get.
Such filming techniques add visual and creative stimulation, but the film’s real focus and heart are in the people who live in the bohemian household and ultimately form a loving, supportive family to each other.
We are treated to fine acting that penetrates our emotions, elicits our involvement, and makes us reflect, and also laugh. Each scene is about “the individual”—his or her unique, baffling experience in life that no one else can share despite the longing to relate and be understood by another—the longing for interpersonal fusion that lasts. But it doesn’t, it never can, because that’s life. Characters are the force in this movie, and the actors ability to use their faces alone to reveal their deepest inner workings is remarkable. Dorothea’s complex character—memorably portrayed in Benning’s intense, brooding, cigarette-smoking face, parallels Jamie’s choice in love, Julie, who won’t have sex with him because it would ruin their friendship; both women are equally complex and unreachable, despite the tangible love-energy in both these male-female relationships. Dorothea clinches this similarity at the end of the movie when she says to Jamie, “Julie’s a complicated woman to take on, I’m impressed in a way.”
The movie is about adolescence and how parents and children exist in different spheres during those rocky, self-discovery years, and when love and caring are present—as they are with Jamie and Dorothea—how the two sides hurt as they try to communicate and accept each other but without much success. We are shown how the moments of pure unity and mutual understanding happen rarely and are to be treasured forever, for in any relationship such transient communion is true to life, true to love, and we can’t ask for more. In 20th Century Women, the five characters know this truth, and that’s the sad tinge to their lives, to all our lives. As Dorothea says to Jamie in their one moment of happy closure: “I guess I just wanted you to have more—a happier life than mine.” A classic parent wish.
Jamie is “raised” by women, but as we make our way through the film we understand that Jamie also makes himself. He is the one who wants to read Sisterhood Is Powerful and Our Bodies Ourselves—it’s not forced on him. He is the one who decides for himself to accompany Abbie to her important cervical cancer follow-up meeting, and he sticks by her when she gets the news that the surgery left an “incompetent cervix,” so that she shouldn’t have children. He listens to Julie in bed each night as she relates her sexual escapades and feelings. He asks her what an orgasm is like for women. He takes the initiative in buying a pregnancy test for her and seeing her through the results—negative. On several occasions he tries to get his mother to open up and talk to him about herself: “Why are you alone? Why aren’t you happy?” They are both caregivers but in different ways because of their ages and roles. And Dorothea has difficulty sharing herself. Jamie, true to his generation, has an easier time. When he explains his “errant” actions to his mystified mother, he says, “I want to be a good guy, I want to be able to satisfy a woman.” For any woman watching that scene, Jamie symbolizes the best in a twentieth-century American man.
William, the hippie, ceramicist, house-renovator tenant in his thirties is also a good and sympathetic man to women and part of the household’s communal, loving support, but he doesn’t have Jamie’s special depth. He’s partly along for the ride wherever it takes him, a free spirit, a flower child. We see this in some of the movie’s funniest, theater-of-the-absurd scenes, where Abbie plays the key role. When she goes to William’s room and asks if he wants to fool around with her, and he says, “Really? . . . yah . . . I do,” the timing is exquisite. This kind of hilarity happens again at one of Dorothea’s regular dinner parties when Abbie makes everyone say aloud the unutterable word “menstruation,” which leads to the semblance of a group therapy session where some of the characters open up about their sex lives. William butts in at the end of the surreal scene to say: “Jamie, remember, you can’t just have sex with a vagina, you have to have sex with the whole woman.” Another time, Abbie comes into Jamie’s bedroom to tell him about her drunken brawl at the bar, and Julie’s head pops up on the other side of Jamie. Abbie tries to block Julie’s eyes and ears as she whispers adamantly to Jamie: “You can’t continue letting her sleep here if she refuses to have sex with you. It’s disempowering.”When mother and son have their single moment of pure connection, Jamie asks, “Were you and Dad ever in love?” And Dorothea answers, “Sure . . . or um . . . maybe I thought I was supposed to be in love and scared I’d never be in love. I picked the best solution at the time.” Jamie gets his answer, but it’s also an answer for all of us about the complicated relationship of love. In this heartfelt, imaginatively created movie, we bask in eccentric but real people and real moments—we experience ourselves in a timeless, placeless way. But no matter when or where, love permeates.