20th Century Women (2016) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig
Small role: Alia Shawkat
Director: Mike Mills
Screenplay: Mike Mills
Review published January 28, 2017
Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsuckers) writes and directs this textured semi-autobiographical drama, set in Santa Barbara in 1979, after the women's liberation movement and free love have made way for a bohemian existence for the laid-back seaside town. Most of the film plays as a coming-of-age story for virginal fifteen-year-old Jamie Fields (Zumann, Sinister 2), who explores his curiosity with sex, peers, literature, and his distanced relationship with his mother, Dorothea (Bening, Rules Don't Apply). Dorothea is, at this point in her life, a single and defiantly independent mother, dealing with a large house renovation while catering to two of the tenants currently inhabiting it, handyman William (Crudup, Jackie), and cancer surviving artist and photographer Abbie (Gerwig, Maggie's Plan). However, Dorothea's main priority is to Jamie, with whom she becomes concerned may not grow up normally without a father in his life, especially as he becomes interested in girls, mostly focusing on his seventeen-year-old platonic neighborhood friend Julie (Fanning, Live by Night), who enjoys is intimacy but is not interested in sex with him.
As Jamie begins to pull away, as many teenage boys do with their mothers, Dorothea asks his main influencers, William, Abbie and Julie, if they can keep an eye out for her, and to lend guidance to a boy without someone he trusts more to guide him. Between his female mentors, as well as the feminist psychology books they give him, Jamie begins his education on learning more on what he needs to know to be an adjusted, compassionate adult, though his mother still worries that he might be exposed to too much heartbreak too soon.
Strong performances anchor 20th Century Women, with its varies and nuanced personalities that all feel deeply thoughtful and lived in. It's not only the people but the times, as America seems in a transition between the old ideas and the oncoming of Reagan's "Morning in America", as defiantly anarchist punk makes way for more melodic tones of New Wave, and as a hippie generation begins its eventual transition to yuppies and beyond.
'It takes a village to raise a child' seems an allusion that could be made within Mills' film, as Dorothea makes an attempt to understand Jamie's generation by experiencing firsthand, but it only feels foreign and un-relatable to someone of her age. It could also be said that Dorothea's willingness to allow Jamie a great deal of personal freedom to find his own path in life means that he'll be relying on peers for formative ideas and to educate his burgeoning ideologies.
It's this level of detail within the richly developed and authentically portrayed characters, enough to form your own studies on, that sets 20th Century Women apart from so many other slice-of-life dramas. Julie struggles with identity and intimacy, burying her feelings and uncomfortable vulnerability by getting high or engaging in meaningless sex for distractions. The daughter of a psychologist, Julie is preoccupied in trying to train Jamie on how to appear secure even when he's not, such as how to properly hold a cigarette, or how to approach his wardrobe as a man would and should. Abbie's desire for sex seems more to try to find a healing process for herself, perhaps wanting to feel desired again after cervical cancer surgery that has possibly rendered her unable to carry a child. Abbie's approach to Jamie is to expose him to the things she finds expression in -- books on feminist empowerment and punk rock rage.
The house under construction also serves as a metaphor for the rehabilitation process, not only literally, but for those who reside within. Former hippie and perpetual broken-heart William brings in a the power of working of tranquility and a harmony with others, trying to find a way to fix himself through fixing other things and other people. Dorothea is always in a state of trying to hold everything together and feel connected, even though her attempts at building and maintaining strong bridges fall short because she lacks the know-how to understand what this new generation is going through.
Dorothea is of the old school, connecting more with what what has come before; she immediately relates with Jimmy Carter's words during his 'crisis of conscience' speech to the nation, wherein he relates his energy policy going forward. Mills concentrates more on the philosophy behind that, though, as Carter relates the crossroads of a potentially fragmenting nation, and on how too many of us worship self-indulgence and consumption, and that America may be heading toward a darker era where the bedrocks of what unites us as a people are no longer regarded as important. Dorothea, who is within a year in age of Carter, relates to his message in a way that the younger set does not, as she grew up during the Great Depression, then World War II, in a time when family, friends and neighbors regularly sacrificed their interests and livelihood to help one another for a common cause.
The words were prophetic, entering soon after into the upwardly mobile yuppie-dominated Reagan era, as the film finds a fragmentation among those who listen to different forms of music, all the way until today, where people are completely divorced from one another in terms of what music they can hear, TV shows they can watch, news that informs them, as well as who they choose to communicate with in social media all throughout the day, never needing to interact or engage with the real people around them.
One of the more interesting elements of 20th Century Women is its use of time in its narration, as we follow actions in the present, stitched together by narration of a character voice from the future, sometimes from beyond their death. It is also beautifully scored with an ear for a cosmic sense of the experience by Roger Neill (Don't Think Twice), who also composed for Mills' prior effort, Beginners. Given that the film occasionally displaces its narration in future time, such a lush and vibrant score accentuates the spirit of the storyline quite well, especially as it plays over time lapse elements (Koyaanisqatsi gets a bit of screen time) or archival photographs meant to give a backstory for the characters in short order. The film itself is more exploritory than expository, searching for a deeper meaning to their connections around them, hoping that a path to happiness will emerge in their intellectual and emotional pursuits.
The film's title is a bit ponderous, as Mills' characters seem to be about specific women rather than as representatives of women of the 20th Century, even though there is some commentary about previous generations being somewhat incapable of ever understanding the wants, needs and desires of the next. The film is also concerned more on the teenage Jamie is the core of the film rather than the women. However, given that the film is also about how America really did go down the road to fragmentation and self-indulgence in the 1980s, contrasting to Dorothea's generation born in the 1920s, who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, in a time when communities looked out for one another, and it really did take a village to raise a child, one can see the philosophy behind her thinking that what Jamie needs is a network of people to look out for his well being.
Amusing, emotionally insightful, sincere, 20th Century Women is nostalgic but not romanticized, taking a peek at a time and place in the lives of several interesting people, as well as a nation, who find themselves at a crossroads on what to do -- stay connected or forge one's own path. It's a mosaic of different people, events, and points of view at the end of an era for one generations' value system closing and a new and different one Jamie is about to be thrust into, where people forged their own path, and very few people partake of the same kinds of art, literature, entertainment, or news, causing fractures in our upbringing less homogeneous and more divided into the self-interests and myopia, where people seek advantage over one another rather than helping each other, that Carter had so prophetically warned us about in 1979.
©2017 Vince Leo