20th Century Women:
Life Imitates Life In This Sentimental, Vibrant Reflection on 1970s California
For many filmmakers, the idea of creating from one’s own life is a formative notion. It can propel the average story from seeming trite and cliche to greater artistic bounds. For Mike Mills, this sentiment appears quite literal. Following 2010’s Beginners, based on the life and death of his father, it seems only natural that Mills’ follow-up would be about his mother. 20th Century Women is stylistically similar to its predecessor, incorporating archival images alongside the plot and filled with wry, witty voiceovers. The scope, however, it’s what’s expanded: set in Santa Barbara, 1979, 20th Century Women grows beyond its core group of irreverent characters to touch on larger themes of life, death, and fulfillment, as well as vital distinctions between punk bands.
The primary setting is a boarding house, a magnificent and decrepit mansion once occupied by early-century tycoons, then by mid-century bohemians, and finally by Dorothea, who dreams of restoring it to its former glory. It’s occupants include Dorothea herself, her fourteen-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the crimson-haired photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman and mechanic who’s helping Dorothea restore the house. And while she doesn’t technically pay rent, girl-next-door Julie (Elle Fanning) spends most of her time sneaking into Jamie’s room at night, albeit just to talk (unbeknownst to Dorothea and much to the frustration of Jamie). When she realizes her sympathetic motherly charm can no longer quell Jamie’s growing teenage discontent, Dorothea employs Abbie and Julie to watch over him and provide the guidance she can’t: “You get to see him out in the world as a person,” explains Dorothea, “I never will.” And so begins Jamie’s coming of age.
As far as plots go, Dorothea’s proposition for Abbie and Julie to “raise” Jamie is about as much as you’re going to get out of the film. Instead of carefully marking all the instances where Jamie finally learns to become a man, so to speak, 20th Century Women is more of a meditation on life in 1979. Rather than clear-cut chapters, the film explores the thinly-veiled paranoia of a world in the throws of postmodernism, the heyday of second-wave feminism, and the global malaise that permeated Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Much of the film is adapted from Mills’ own childhood in Santa Barbara, with many of the characters representing real people (most obviously Benning as Mills’ mother). But where Mills’ proclivity for nostalgia could easily turn self-indulgent, it winds up a vividly personal yet universally understood take on the grandeur of life.
It will come as no surprise to followers of Mills’ work that he’s not one for subtle metaphors about time or memory. And while they might be heavy-handed (when the characters narrate their respective births and deaths, for example), they’re never insensitive. Mills devotees should also know he’s not one for sweeping plots or dramatic crescendos either. Though his characters might blatantly express their “want” (aided of course by a clever one-liner or as the result of witty banter), they almost never achieve it, and instead live inside the perpetuity of their greater desires.
And yet, Mills’ films are often anchored by their stupendous casts, as seen in the understated roles of Beginners and now in 20th Century Women. Benning, as the de facto matriarch, expertly weaves a Dorothea that is at once stolid and spirited, both trapped in her Depression-era modesty and itching to appear relevant (or at least sovereign) to her Gen. X son. Far from being too vague or undefined, Dorothea is an amalgamation of charms and flaws, all of which are carried out with gusto by Benning. Fanning and newcomer Zumann take what is (ostensibly) an easily disposable young romance plot and instead play both sage and pupil, swapping positions throughout the movie. Gerwig too shines as the effervescent punk guru, informing the entire boarding house on the pillars of feminism or employing them in her latest photography project, all while silently battling cervical cancer. Though it appears that every character embraces certain loved (or despised) tropes, upon further inspection, they buck all categorization just when you think you have them pigeonholed. But as enchanting as its characters may be, the film still lacks focus, shifting from upset to upset without any well-defined arc. 20th Century Women paints a beautiful gallery of characters, all dressed up with nothing to do.
While this lack of direction is understandably frustrating, as the film so poignantly points out, sometimes life just happens, without direction, reason, or explanation. Dorothea wanted to be the next Amelia Earhart, but she didn’t. William doesn’t really want to sleep around with women half his age, but he does. Abbie and Julie appear content in their aimlessness, blindly feeding vague desires for experience and attention, but ending up with less than what they started with. Young Jamie is perhaps the only one with any kind of concrete goals (in the long term, to transition into adulthood, and in the short term, to get into Julie’s pants), though he too fades into opacity, wandering between small, unresolved conflicts. It’s precisely because the world of 20th Century Women feels so limitless that it feels equally apathetic; these people could be doing anything, but they choose nothing instead. And yet, they all meander through this hazy nothingness together, because, as Dorothea dryly notes, “now it’s 1979, and nothing means anything.”
For all its formless meditations on life, 20th Century Women still has something tangible to say: that life as we know it, while often punctuated by events both tragic and joyful, is filled mostly by the minutiae of the everyday. Dorothea’s favorite brand of cigarettes and the reason she smokes, Abbie’s near-instinctive knowledge of the rapidly diversifying punk scene, and Julie’s elaborate visions for her future piece together a sense of familiarity that’s more than simple world-building. And though much of the core details of the film are adapted from Mills’ own life, they’re hardly disparate. Though it barely hits the two-hour mark, 20th Century Women is able to paint not one, but five equally impressive portraits of its characters, textured and rich, and without any suffocating sentimentality. While there may not be a hefty tagline about the significance of life at the end of it, 20th Century Women is, at the very least, a reminder that while we might not all go through life in the same ways, we all persevere just the same.