Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women is a cinematic mixtape dedicated to 1979, a year when America stood poised on the brink of something new. The movie is semi-autobiographical — the teenage boy at its center, also poised on the brink of becoming a man, stands in for Mills at the same age — but it would be better to think of it as an autobiography of a cultural moment, driven by three stellar performances by Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning.
As much as anything, the American 20th century was marked by women (and men) trying to reorient themselves in a less rigidly defined society, especially after World War II. A middle-aged woman at the end of the 1970s could find herself in a world entirely unlike the Depression-era America she was born into. And a woman a generation younger might find the gap between herself and her mother to be very wide.
20th Century Women funnels that uncertainty through a multigenerational story that’s light on its feet, funny, and wide-ranging, full of bright performances, evocative music, and the occasional experimental flourish. It’s a collection of moments that act like strokes of a paintbrush, and it’s not till the end that the vivid whole is revealed.
In 20th Century Women, women of different generations are raising a teenage boy
Dorothea (Annette Bening) had her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) at 40 and has raised him by herself in Santa Barbara. She lives in a rambling old house with Jamie, now 15, and some boarders: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something artist who’s battling cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), a mechanic and a burnt-out hippie who’s helping Dorothea with the house. Jamie’s best friend since childhood, Julie (Elle Fanning), is 17, at loose ends, and the object of Jamie’s affection. She climbs in his window some nights to talk to him about her sexual adventures, but she rebuffs his advances. (They sometimes play “therapy,” though; Julie’s mother, whom she hates, is a therapist.)
Dorothea is a bit of a free spirit, an independent woman born in the Depression who hasn’t taken the expected route in life. But even though she’s open to experience, by 1979 the culture has gotten a bit past her. She listens to the records Abbie and Jamie like, trying to wrap her mind around punk (already in its decline) and newer bands like the Talking Heads and Black Flag. She reads a lot, operates a power sander on her bannisters while wearing coveralls, and throws great parties. But she knows she needs help raising Jamie, who finds William and his interest in building things and construction insufferably boring. So she enlists Abbie and Julie to help him figure out how to navigate the world and be a good man.
Abbie hands him feminist texts like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful — his assiduous attention to them is both touching and humorous — and Julie tries to teach him how to smoke and walk like a man, and how to properly take care of a woman. Jamie goes to punk shows with Abbie and gets beat up by his peers for his knowledge of female anatomy. And sometimes, being 15, Jamie fights with his mom, who is starting to be bewildered by her son’s interests.
But this isn’t really Jamie’s story. It’s Dorothea’s and Abbie’s and Julie’s, three women whose complicated lives intersect with one another’s, and with their own mothers’ lives. Bening, Gerwig, and Fanning don’t just anchor the story, they fill it with life, art, ideas, passions, and contradictions. Jamie, as Mills’s stand-in, is watching them and interpreting them — and then realizing he has to let them interpret themselves.
20th Century Women uses all kinds of tricks of the cinematic toolbox to create a vibrant story
Mills layers multi-voiced narration over the story, with several of the characters talking about their own pasts (or their parents’) and their future. The movie stays in 1979, but we sometimes zoom out for an eagle-eyed look at how characters’ lives have changed: Dorothea, who was a trailblazer as a young person but now feels sort of conventional; William, whose hippie commune years left him uncertain how to relate to women; Abbie, whose cervical cancer is a result of a fertility drug her mother took. And we see how they will change in the future, particularly Dorothea, who will live until 1999.
This voiceover tactic could seem twee, but it’s handled just lightly enough to be mostly humorous, and it manages to crack some of the conventional ways we might expect these stories to be told. Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie emerge as vibrant, complex characters who rarely do what you expect from women in a movie. They act, instead, like real people, full of contradictions, with their own stories to tell.
And while the movie starts out seeming like it might be about unconventional families and communal living, situations in which everyone is given an equivalent voice, it’s fascinating to watch the varying shades of wisdom and foolishness emerge in all the characters. Julie seems both too cool for anyone and intensely vulnerable; Jamie, even when he’s saying grown-up things, delivers them in a way that’s undeniably 15. And Dorothea, by contrast — in a riveting performance by Bening — seems more innocent than she actually is. Life has not been easy on her, and she sees herself more clearly than the younger people realize.
Before he started making feature films (his most recent was Beginners), Mills made music videos for artists like Moby, Yoko Ono, and Blonde Redhead. In 20th Century Women he pulls together his visual and musical senses, together with the kind of careful editing music videos require, to evoke a mood as much as tell a story, including a soundtrack that spans the 20th century. Images and archival footage are spliced in as well: 20th Century Women uses the whole range of tools in the cinematic toolbox to bring viewers along for the ride.
Mills’s affection for these women, and the real women on whom they’re patterned, keeps it all grounded; filmmakers trying to portray real women on screen would do well to take notes. The result is, on the whole, a delight: part wistful nostalgia, part reminder that the world changes too fast for any of us to keep up. Mills is lucky to have had such fascinating guides, and we’re lucky he shared them.
20th Century Women opens in limited theaters on December 28 and in wide release on January 20.