Filmmaker Mike Mills’s last film, Beginners (2010), was about his father, who came out as gay at the age of 75. 20th Century Women, which is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, is about Mills’s mother (his father is completely absent and apparently long out of the picture).
Mills is represented by 15-year-old Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives in a large house with his mother (Dorothea, played by Annette Bening) and her two boarders: William (Billy Crudup), the handyman and former hippy, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is recovering from cancer treatments. Jamie’s best friend is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who climbs up the side of the house each night to sleep beside Jamie. Jamie has a crush on Julie, but their relationship is platonic (at Julie’s insistence).
20th Century Women is an ensemble film - all of the above characters (some of whom are quite eccentric) are fully-developed and given significant airtime - but at its centre is Dorothea, who, at the age of 55, is struggling with aging and with the rapid changes happening in the life of her son. She regularly invites men to dinner, and has feelings for William, but she resists deeper relationships.
As for her son, Dorothea feels that Jamie might need more than just one parent at this point in his life, so she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her parent Jamie. Abbie, a radical feminist, tries to help Jamie by sharing with him the most intimate details of being a woman and giving him books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful. Julie, meanwhile, is sharing with Jamie the intimate details of her active sex life. When Dorothea realizes what she’s done, she tries to protect Jamie from the other two women in his life. But he keeps assuring her that everything is alright.
20th Century Women is a meandering film, moving through time and experiences in a quirky and almost haphazard way, but many of its scenes are absolutely magical - full of wisdom and astonishingly good performances, and, as the stories of each character unfold, we begin to see the larger picture of Jamie’s and Dorothea’s lives in a way that makes the film seem greater than the sum of its parts, even while many of those parts are profound and beautiful. The result is a deeply-satisfying film that feels incredibly real and honest, a depiction of everyday life that everyone can relate to in some way, full of natural and brilliant acting by all concerned (Bening stands out with one her best performances).
At the same time, one gets the feeling that the story is a little too easy. Where are the emotional outbursts that usually accompany the pain and loneliness some of these characters are experiencing? Where are the tragic consequences of stupid choices? Or have films made us think that life is always dramatic? Because the film is autobiographical, I have to assume that this relatively calm and understated story is a reliable reflection of Mills’s life at the time. And maybe the story can connect more deeply with us as a result.
Despite the fact that Jamie is, in some way, the central figure of the film, what sets 20th Century Women apart are the strong, dynamic, fully-realized women, from three different generations, who surround Jamie. Each of these women is struggling to find her place in a life and time full of challenges for women. Though written by a man, this is, in my opinion (as a man) very much a feminist film.
20th Century Women gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. While I wouldn’t recommend 20th Century Women to those who generally don’t like quirky arthouse comedy dramas, or to those who are offended by explicit sexual conversation, I think this underrated gem about relationships and community is a must-see.