20th Century Women (2016) by Mike Mills
Review by Lydia Creech
As a 21st century woman (I think I count, even if I was born in the ‘90s), who feels a bit Midnight in Paris-y towards the 70’s (cinema, at least), the first thing I was struck by in 20th Century Women was the detail. The way people dressed and kitchens looked and the music cues all stood out very sharply against a story that felt dreamy and nebulous. Mills has highlighted the universality of growing up and change (from generations to decades to presidents to seasons) by focusing in on the specificity of detail--the Birkenstocks and how one holds a cigarette and dying your hair red because Bowie did. The moment feels endless but also bound forever to this time and place.
20th Century Women is a bit of an idyll. Set in the summer of ‘79 but stretching out in either direction in time with the help of still photography and voice over, it has the quality of memory--the important bits stand out, but the edges are fuzzy. The aforementioned music cues--for example Talking Heads or The Raincoats or Benny Goodman--all feel specific and grounding, but when Roger Neil’s score comes in it's all floaty and ethereal, reminding us that this time has passed. The particulars of the story don’t seem to matter much; rather, the people and moments that leave a searing impact on your life are remembered and attempted to put into context after the fact.
The story, such as it were, of 20th Century Women is that of Dorothea (Annette Benning), a single mom who enlists the help of her boarder, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and her son’s best friend Julia (Elle Fanning) to help raise her teenaged son the best way they can. That’s a basic plot summary, but really the story comes secondary to the loving portraits director Mike Mills paints of all these characters. On the podcast, Andrew talked about Mills self-portrait of himself as the teenaged son in the story and his path to “male allyship.” It’s a lovely journey and picture of growth, and I think the strongest testament and culmination (so far) to Mills’s path is the fact that he made this movie with portraits of the titular women just as complex and affecting as his own.
The three women at the heart of 20th Century Women relatable and flawed and funny and beautiful, and, frankly, aspirational. Julia plays the “love interest,” I guess, except she refuses that sort of relationship and pigeonholing. She has her own problems to figure out, and she doesn’t want to complicate her best friendship (except maybe she sends confusing signals, but, being a teenager is HARD, and when he comes right up to “you sleep with everyone but me,” the movie is NOT on his side). Abbie takes on the “cool older sister” role, but she’s also dealing with some extremely serious reproductive health problems. Dorothea lived through The Great Depression and can come off a bit aloof, but she’s deeply saddened by necessarily growing apart from her son and only child. Bening absolutely breathes life into the role, and she was robbed an Oscar nom (but I do want Huppert to take it for Elle) They’re all in different places, approach life differently, and occasionally clash, but that’s not to say they cancel each other’s influence out. Each woman has her own story, and each is treated as important, in its own right and as a part of everyone else’s story, too.
Just telling you some details of each woman’s life doesn’t get to how affecting it was to see them treated so carefully and completely onscreen, and I’m grateful to Mills for taking the time. I had such a strong strong reaction to just seeing ordinary women’s lives given a cinematic treatment. I saw bits of myself in Julia and Abbie, and I hope I can be as independent and self-assured (even when she’s not!) as Dorothea one day. It’s partly a failure on my part to seek these stories out (they do exist), but also a failure on the part of the industry to make and promote woman-centered films. As we frequently discuss on the podcast, your dollar at the boxoffice is your vote for the types of movies you want to see more of, and I hope you will take the time and go see this, too!