Near the start of Mike Mills’ new film 20th Century Women, Dorothea (Annette Bening) sits beside her teenage son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) in a state of shock, having just watched their car spontaneously burst into flames in a grocery store parking lot. It’s an arresting image, and her reaction – wry and somewhat cryptic – feels like a tiny window into the themes of the movie ahead. “It wasn’t always old,” she says, “it just got that way all of a sudden.” One gets the sense that she’s obliquely talking about herself here, or maybe her son, who is on the cusp of adolescence, or even America in 1979, poised on the brink of a new era. I know how she feels. As David Byrne put it “And you may ask yourself/Well, how did I get here?” It is no coincidence that Jamie is later hazed by Black Flag fans in sun-soaked Santa Barbara for listening to the Talking Heads. Mills has made a movie rich with this kind narrative symmetry, a story that deftly uses both visual and thematic cultural reference points to drive its refreshingly plotless story home.
Fans of writer/director Mills’ previous film, Beginners, will find familiar, albeit slightly different, territory here. Where Beginners fictionalized Mills’ relationship with his late father, 20th Century Women turns to his mother for inspiration. And while it’s tempting to think of these films as a diptych, 20th Century Women stands on its own. Set in late 70’s California and suffused with golden light and hyper-saturated colors, 20th Century Women takes on a coming of age narrative through the prism of an ensemble cast. Faced with a world and a son that she is increasingly unfamiliar with (“I recognize him less daily”) Dorothea enlists the help of Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a neighborhood friend and a boarder in her Victorian house respectively, to help usher Jamie into adulthood. Each woman is of, and in turn represents, a different era — a child of the depression, the boomer generation, and Gen X — and through their various characters Mills highlights the tension inherent in generational divides. A few things do unite them, however, including a certain emotional distance, a sense of private longing, and, of course, that they are women. Mills writes women well. When asked if you “need a man to raise a man” Dorothea answers, “No, I don’t think so.”
Mills, who has directed music videos for the likes of Yoko Ono, Air, and Blonde Redhead, possesses a distinctive, pop-inflected sensibility. As in Beginners, Mills makes use of stock footage and voice-over in order to situate us in place and time. These reference points serve as a kind of visual shorthand, like historical cue cards flashing upon the screen. (For example, Dorothea’s taste in music is summarized with a clip of Louis Armstrong; her era of film and celebrity with a few seconds of Bogart.) It may be in part because I’m of the MTV generation, but I love this technique. I admire Mills’ ability to choose the perfect visual detail, the succinctness with which he contextualizes a scene. In fact, Mills has peppered this film with cultural references that give us a deeper understanding of his characters (Julie reads Judy Bloom; Abbie reads Susan Sontag) as well as the era surrounding them. Music plays its own starring role in the film, with Abbie introducing Jamie to bands like The Raincoats and Siouxsie and the Banshees. For Jamie, punk is an education, and I was reminded of the reverence that we show to the bands we first fall in love with, the way those self-appointed heroes become extensions of ourselves.
For Jamie, punk is an education, and I was reminded of the reverence that we show to the bands we first fall in love with, the way those self-appointed heroes become extensions of ourselves.
Dorothea also makes an effort to immerse herself in this music in order to better know her son. Bening’s portrayal of an older, self-sufficient, and essentially unknowable mother, is spot on. (Like Dorothea, my mother also had me in her 40’s and is a complete cipher to everyone, including her children. Mills may have my particular number, but the many shots of Bening, reading in bed in her pajamas, cigarette eternally at hand, strike me as the collective ur-image of late 70’s and early 80’s California motherhood.) But it’s Bening’s face when listening to punk music — bewildered, sincere, and earnestly trying to connect with it in order to connect with her son — that most struck me about her performance. It’s the face that I saw my own mother make the first time she listened to Radiohead, and it’s the face, I’m afraid to admit, that I’m beginning to make while toggling through radio stations myself. Similarly, the way Bening regards Jamie, contradictory emotions playing across her face– the battle between a chilly maternal affection and trying to see him as a person in the world — is perfection. Fanning and Gerwig both bring significant charm to their cool-girl characters, Billy Crudup does a fine turn as a burnout handyman, and Zumann is endearing as a boy on the cusp, but it’s Bening who steals scene after scene.
There were a few minor incidences where the film seemed not to trust its own loosely plotted nature: the fact that their house was being remodeled seemed a little on the nose, for example, and one particular vast leap in time via voice-over felt almost conscious of being conscious of itself. Still, I have faith in Mills; he is a sensitive director, and perhaps these devices were necessary. I was extremely content to wander with these characters, and I left the theatre feeling homesick not just for my own family, but for what seemed to be a more innocent time. (Was it more innocent? Or do all bygone eras feel innocent because we were younger, and presumably more innocent ourselves?) In an important scene, having gathered to watch the president’s address, the characters of 20th Century Women listen to what would later be known as Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence Speech. “We’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning,” he said, as prescient and relevant a statement as ever. At its core, 20th Century Women reminds us that the people we know most intimately are sometimes the most difficult to really see; it’s trying to bridge that divide that constitutes family.
It feels remiss not to mention that I watched 20th Century Women a week before I voted for Hillary Clinton, whom I was sure would be the first female president of the United States. Election day came and went, and we are publishing this review mere weeks before Donald Trump, whom we all well know has bragged about sexual assault and consistently denigrated women, will be sworn in as our next president. Present politics have nothing to do with Mike Mills’ latest movie, except that they have everything to do with everything, because nothing is apolitical now, nor, in reality, was it ever.
…nothing is apolitical now, nor, in reality, was it ever.
The significance of a film called 20th Century Women has amplified in a matter of weeks. There are many things to hold. On the one hand, Mill offers us a female character who provides a teenage boy with feminist texts, and his matriarch dreams of being a pilot, of literally flying high above any ceiling – glass or otherwise. On the other, this is a film called 20th Century Women, and its women are all white. If we consider Mills’ film one story of how we got here, what story will some future film tell? Who will write, direct, and star in 21st Century Women, and what will they have to say?