Films depicting the past are often steeped in nostalgia. However 20th Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills, does not romanticize this coming-of-age story set in the late ‘70s. Rather, the film shows 1978 Santa Barbara in an immediate and believable way, as if it were a modern story.
Protagonist Jamie is a young teenage boy who has been raised by his single mother, Dorothea (played by Annette Bening). They’ve recently moved into a large old house in need of renovations, and live with two roommates, a twenty-something photographer named Abbie (played by Greta Gerwig) and free-spirited William (played by Billy Crudup), who has a passion for ceramics. As well, Jamie’s best friend Julie often spends the night with him, however she is adamant that they only sleep together, not have sex. Her presence adds to this strange, temporary collective of individuals– the odd family– who help each other get through the times.
At first it is surprising to see that a male character is at the centre of a film with a title like 20th Century Women, but the story focuses on Jamie in order to show the different dynamics between the three women in his life who come from separate generations. The first is his mom, who Jamie tells people is “from the depression” when he’s embarrassed of her. Next is his passionate roommate Abbie, who is battling cervical cancer. And finally there’s Julie, his complicated and tumultuous best friend with whom he is in love, even though she refuses to love him back. Through their different relationships with Jamie, the three women’s personal stories and idiosyncrasies are revealed.
Dorothea is both a pleasure to watch and infuriating. When she looks at her son, she scrutinizes him with her cigarette in hand, trying to understand him. Yet she has an air of condescension and detachment. She sometimes acts like she’s figured him out and knows what he’s going through. She’s been there. In acting like she knows his internal struggles, she belittles him. For instance, she encourages him to have his heart broken, because it’s “a tremendous way to learn about the world.” At another point in the movie, Dorothea lumps Jamie in with the entirety of all men. Jamie protests that he is only one person, “not all men,” and Dorothea considers his point for a moment, in that condescending way of hers, and disagrees.
The viewer cannot help but empathize with Jamie for his petulant rebellion against his mom, and at the same time, the viewer cannot help but empathize with Dorothea for having to put up with her son’s rebellious and childish ways.
A large part of the film is about raising Jamie. Dorothea feels inadequate that she can’t do it alone, so she asks Abbie and Julie to help raise him. When Jamie gets word of this, he is not pleased.
Abbie teaches Jamie about punk rock and lends him her feminist text, The Sisterhood is Powerful, hoping it will make him a better man. Jamie feels inspired and says he wants to be a good man (and a satisfying lover, after reading an essay that schooled him on “clitoral stimulation”). Jamie reads one of the book’s essays called “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete” to his mother. It is obvious that the essay reminds him of her, who becomes hurt and accuses him of thinking he knows who she is, just because he read that essay. But he is trying to understand her (and sometimes thinks he does), just as she is trying to understand him (and sometimes thinks she does, too).
The film is challenging to describe because it is aimless; there is no formulaic narrative. But the story does capture the mixture of unease and uncertainty one often feels about the future, along with elation, novelty, sadness, love and spite — emotions that add up to a life. 20th Century Women is a beautiful and complex film with beautiful and complex characters that deserve more description than this review can provide. My recommendation is that everyone should go see this movie and experience it for themselves.
20th Century Women has been nominated for one Academy Award and two Golden Globes.