Aptly titled 20th Century Women, Mike Mills’ latest film is a portraiture of characters shaped by that time, ranging from the Depression era of the 1930s to the dying punk movement of Pre-Reagan America. While exploring the characters, Mills employs a stylistic choice of using archival footage of historical events as well as references to contemporary literature and music of the time. The result is a mix between fact and fiction where the former begins to inform the latter. That is to say, Mills uses real events to create fictional characters, but it should be noted that the element of fiction doesn’t remove the authenticity of how genuine his characters are.
I saw the film at the 54th New York Film Festival and a press conference was held following the screening. There, Mills revealed that the lead character, Dorothea (Annette Bening), is based on his own mother, and it’s not just Dorothea whose character influence is taken from Mills’ personal world but also Julie (Elle Fanning). When asked how they prepared for the character, Mills and Fanning discussed how they were tasked with various reading material and that by the end of the process, Mills had begun to incorporate certain aspects of Fanning into the character of Julie. It’s that combination of both the personal and historical, and their subsequent bleeding into each other, that ultimately makes 20th Century Women such a nuanced and sincere portrait.
At the center of the film is young teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea’s son. Being a single mother, Dorothea worries about Jamie’s upbringing, and so she enlists the help of two other women — Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a tenant/roommate, and Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend.
Abbie is perhaps the biggest influence on Jamie; she’s an artist who dyed her hair red after watching “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” She’s a rock-hard feminist who gives Jamie a theoretical book on women’s sexuality and empowerment. During a dinner scene, she announces the annoyance of menstruating and when Dorothea is disgusted by her use of the word “menstruation,” Abbie repeats the word until it’s chanted by everyone and normalized.
Julie is a feminist in her own right. She’s 17 and sleeps around with other boys, because “half the time” the orgasm makes the sex worth it, but she refuses to be “slut-shamed.” She sneaks into Jamie’s bedroom at night, and the two sleep together, literally. Jamie falls in love, but Julie just wants to remain friends, and so she’s the veritable Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the film; the love-interest who is made into a figure of romance by way of a false idea.
Abbie finds out that Julie sleeps with Jamie (but refuses to have sex with him) and tells Julie to stop. “You can’t let her sleep in your bedroom if she’s not going to have sex with you,” she advises Jamie. And so, it is through their differences in how Jamie should be raised that Mills creates a film with nuanced female characters.
That difference of opinions isn’t just between Abbie and Julie, as the conversation of Jamie’s upbringing pervades between all the relationships in the household. And it’s the varying historical and personal influences that make each idea unique. When Jamie discovers that his mom has asked Abbie and Julie to help raise him, he rationalizes her decision by stating that she grew up during the Depression Era — everyone shared everything in order to survive, including the role of parenting.
Abbie herself is coming from the punk and new-wave music scene of the 70s, as well as the second wave feminist movement. From a more conservative person — such as Dorothea — Abbie is consequently viewed as a radical anarchist, leading Dorothea to regret asking Abbie for help; the two argue over the literature Abbie has been giving to Jamie after he gets into a fight with another boy on how to properly please a woman.
The fallout of Jamie’s fight and resulting bruise is as weirdly funny as it is sweetly endearing. Whether it’s in the atmosphere or characters, perhaps the biggest strength of 20th Century Women is how Mills — as both writer and director — effortlessly moves between the worlds and people of his film so organically. Dorothea, Abbie and Julie aren’t split into a binary of ideas between one another, where one person is right and the other wrong. They’re complex, and that complexity also extends into the men of the film.
William (Billy Crudup) is another tenant/roommate of Dorothea’s. With his muscular body, thick mustache and job as a handyman, he instantly comes off as what it means to be a “man,” as defined by certain cultural “blue-collar” imagery. That image of a man comes with connotations, like being good with women — which William is not. He fails to grasp what women wants as evidenced by two awkward scenes — one where he is explicitly told how to have sex, and the other where he takes initiative only to be rebuffed.
Similarly, Jamie also finds that he doesn’t fit into the male standard. Dorothea does entreat William to influence Jamie, but he rejects; Jamie just doesn’t have an interest in mechanics or carpentry — once again, roles thought to be “manly.” Instead, Jamie indulges in music, mostly the “Talking Heads,” for which he is bullied for and labeled an “art fag,” with the insult being used as one of emasculation. That emasculation, however, doesn’t mean that Jamie isn’t masculine in his own right. As Mills shows it, masculinity, like femininity, is complex.
For all his indulgence in feminist literature, at the end of the day Jamie identifies as male, and still is male, and so he views the world through this lens. The result is that his ideas of other people are constructed in a very personal, subjective manner and this is the core of 20th Century Women. Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie all have ideas of who Jamie should be as a man. “Does a boy need a father to become a man,” Dorothea ponders at one point. At another, Jamie too, rather aggressively, cites a piece of text towards his mother on the type of person elder women become.
With Mills so free and acrobatic in his constructions and portrayal of the characters, coupled with excellent acting, it’s difficult not find them endearing given the wit and depth of 20th Century Women.
Anthony Dominguez (@Dmngzzz) is an English/Film graduate from SUNY at Albany. His interests in cinema lie in independent and foreign films, as these works are less likely to be covered and consequently more likely to be forgotten. Anthony wishes to preserve their importance through his writing so others may discover these films.