For a film that is a ‘love letter’ to his mother, the title of Mike Mills’ film 20th Century Women (2016) may seem a bold, far-reaching and impersonal choice. Its title has a kind of snapshot quality to it, a historic cataloguing of a particular time. And essentially that is what his film is about; a passage of time based on Mills’ teenage years and the people who informed it. Set in the sunny locales of Santa Barbara, and the yellow-walled kitchen of his mother’s Spanish colonial home, the film revolves around the lives of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). The latter are boarders his mother takes in, who become members of his makeshift family during the post-hippie, second-wave feminist and punk milieu of 1979.
As a fifty-five-year old single mother to a teenage son, Dorothea’s perceived estrangement from Jamie, causes her to enlist William as a male figure to help guide his life. After a failed attempt for the two bond – “he’s boring” states Jamie, Dorothea recruits Julie and Abbie to help her. Attempting to adhere to Dorothea’s wishes Julie discusses orgasms with Jamie, shows him how to walk like a man while smoking a cigarette and invariably teaches him about love. Abbie plies Jamie with punk records and feminist books, teaching him how to verbally seduce women, and gives him advice like “You need to get out of this town before you end up working in a sunglasses store.” It’s in his relationships with these two women that Jamie really learns.
You need to get out of this town before you end up working in a sunglasses store.
Although not much ‘happens’ in the movie, no standard plot arc is followed, it’s charm and humour is in the acerbic dialogue and the tender and awkward moments between each of its characters. One of the most heartwarming moments is when Abbie, finding out she may not have children, asks Dorothea if having a child is the biggest thing to happen to her. “Yes. I’m sorry,” Dorothea answers truthfully, wiping away Abbie’s tears.
The film’s beauty lies in each of the three women’s performances of their characters’ multi-chromatic natures as they assert themselves at their different stages of life. Fanning’s Julie is at once the standoffish girl next door, vulnerable and funny all at once. Gerwig’s Abbie is in turns angry, hopeful, longs to be desired and wants to be in control, Mills lets her be all of these at once.
But it is Bening’s Dorothea who steals the movie. Her reactions, expressions and her wisecracks are always unexpected as she flouts the society’s arbitrary. “He’s not some cute little guy, he has volition, autonomy and privacy,” she corrects her bank manager when he refuses to set up an account for Jaime at age five. When she gets taken in by the police for a minor traffic violation and talks back to the officer, she tells William and Abbie who come to collect her that “these people have no sense of humour.” She is the matriarchal figure the others spin around, organising dinner parties and asking questions to try to better understand a son who skateboards incessantly and listens to Talking Heads. When she leaves a party prematurely and William crestfallen, asks her where she’s going, we don’t want her to leave either. A moment which foreshadows things to come.