people are suffering from a crisis of confidence (whether they know it or not) and the world is on the brink of entering into an entirely new decade, unaware of the many problems it will offer, while still left haunted by those of the 1970s. At the same time, a mother and her 15 year old son watch on in confused horror from a grocery store window as their family car burns, the same one they’ve had for years, and the last constant remnant of her ex-husband and his father in their lives.
While sitting on the edge of a fire truck in the grocery store’s parking lot and wondering what the hell to do next, she laments about how much they loved that Ford Galaxy, expecting a similar reaction from her son, who instead remembers the car for how much it broke down and overheated on them. “It was old,” he says. “It wasn’t always old,” she replies, “it just got that way all of a sudden.”
That’s how Mike Mills opens his latest film, 20th Century Women, the first film from the writer and director since 2011’s Beginners, and one that tells the story of a mother struggling to raise her teenage son in a society that she doesn’t recognize or understand anymore, and who enlists the help of the other influential women in his life to try and raise him to be a man in modern society… whatever it is that means. Where Beginners was based largely on his relationship with his father, Mills’ mother is the inspiration for 20th Century Women, a film that’s described as a love letter to the women who helped raise us all.
Leading the film is Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields, the enigmatic mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and who acts as the kind of central planet in which all of the film’s other characters orbit around. The film’s cast is filled out by the other tenants living with her and Jamie in their bohemian boarding house, including Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer in her late 20s whose dreams of living a free, artistic life in New York City were dashed when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and forced to come back home to Santa Barbara, and William (Billy Crudup), an older man who spends his days fixing up old cars and repairing Dorothea’s house, while learning to live with the growing uselessness he feels as a man in our ever evolving society.
William’s attraction to Dorothea becomes clear fairly early on, though his progressive, meditative ways of showing it just feel clumsy and laughable to her. But unlike how a lesser film might have portrayed him, William’s earnest cluelessness isn’t treated as simply comedic relief for the other characters, but with the same tender and loving approach Mills shows to all of them, and when Dorothea at one point says to him, “You don’t have many funny lines, do you?” she doesn’t say it disparagingly or rudely, but rather with an intense, legitimate interest to try and understand he and everyone else in her life. The real tragedy of the film and its characters is that they don’t understand how futile of an effort that really is.
Bening gives a career-best performance as Dorothea, elevating Mills’ already insightful writing in a way few other actresses might have been able to. She portrays Dorothea as a woman who can be just as joyful in one moment as she can be frustrated and lonely. Born just before the Great Depression, Dorothea’s attempts to try and understand not only her teenage son but also the “modern world” can sometimes make her seem oblivious to those around her, sure, but the film never forgets the honest and caring reasons for her actions.
Similarly, Greta Gerwig has never been better onscreen than she is as Abbie, who develops a sisterly bond with Jamie in the film, deeming it her responsibility to try and teach him as much about music, women, and culture as she can. It’s no coincidence that all of this is happening at the same time that she’s trying to come to terms with how differently her life has turned out to be from what she had planned. While fighting to hold back tears, when Abbie tells Jamie, “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that,” you’re reminded why Mills is able to make films that feel more emotional and intelligent than any of the other Sundance-y family comedies they’re often associated with.
Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning, Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Lucas Jade Zumann in 20th Century Women
Zumann doesn’t get nearly as much to do in the film as his female counterparts, but that’s less of a flaw in Mills’ filmmaking or the script as it is its intention. Instead, the filmmaker imagines Jamie not as a fully-realized person like those around him but more as a blank slate meant to digest the teachings of Abbie and Dorothea, all while on his way towards adulthood.
Also along for the ride is his best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who sneaks into his house and sleeps over with him every night, but continually blocks his sexual advances, despite her promiscuity with the other boys in their social circle, much to Jamie’s dismay. Perhaps the angriest and most rebellious character in a film filled with them, Julie’s belief that her and Jamie’s relationship is one deeper than the others, and one she doesn’t want to taint with sex, is yet another example of Mills’ ability to take usual genre conventions and elevate them to more relatable and profound levels.
Like with many of his previous films, Mills avoids giving 20th Century Women a traditional plot or narrative at all costs, and while the lack of apparent forward momentum may frustrate some viewers, it gives the film a much more tangential and lived-in feel. Similar to his last film, Beginners, everything that happens in the film is told in the past-tense, with the characters reflecting back on their lives in 1979 in voice over, as if they were writing their own memoirs. In terms of basic storytelling, the inciting incident of 20th Century Women is when Dorothea enlists Abbie and Julie’s help in “raising” Jamie to be a man, but every other scene in the film feels simultaneously separate and connected to each other.
Mills does not have any interest in making a movie where his characters have clear beginning and end points, instead creating a slice-of-life film that shows its characters being just as confused and oblivious about the direction of their lives as the rest of us are. Then, when Mills eventually does tell us what happens to each of the characters, including how one of them dies, we’re only left to look on in awe at the impact that the people we meet and love in our lives have on us, and be thankful for the times that our paths intersect with each other. No matter how brief or fleeting those interactions may be, their indentations often find a way to live on far longer.
Watching 20th Century Women feels less like watching a movie and more like flipping through the pages of a scrapbook, as it shows us specific moments and images throughout an equally specific time in its protagonist’s life, when he was shaped the most by the women around him. The film allows the memories associated with each moment to branch out and build on each other in different, seemingly disconnected fashion. On the surface, they may seem random and unimportant, so it’s only when everything is said and done, that you realize how vividly and brilliantly Mills has managed to bring this cinematic love letter to life. Quite simply, it is unlike any other film out there right now, and cements Mike Mills’ place as one of the more quiet and profound auteurs of his time.