The pitfall of coming of age/teen films—and most films, really—is teaching the audience a lesson as though it’s a lecture. Rather than ponder about the passage of time or how to navigate finding yourself, they blatantly point it out without exploring the complexities. Writer/Director Mike Mills (Beginners, 2011) doesn’t tell you what to think — he tells you what to think about and offers you things to feel. I’ve found that is what separates good films from great ones, especially in the teen genre.
20th Century Women is a cine-memoir about Mike Mills’ own youth and the women who shaped him—namely his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening in a career best performance), a depression era raised woman who is equal parts kind and kick ass. Set in 1979, her fourteen-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), skateboards around Santa Barbara’s streets in the limbo after Nixon’s corruption and on the cusp of the Reagan years. However, the film is really not about him; it’s about the 3 influential women and the only man in his life at that time.
Dorothea recruits Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning)—the only other women in Jamie’s life—to help raise him. Abbie is a twenty-something punk rock loving photographer who briefly escaped to New York but returned home because of cancer and is now a tenant at Dorothea’s boarding house. Sixteen-year-old Julie is a bubble gum blonde and rebel without a cause who has been Jamie’s closest friend since they were kids. She smokes and drinks and dates guys and speaks with wisdom beyond her years. She asks Dorothea, “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” to which Dorothea responds, “No, I don’t think so. I think you’re what’s gonna work for him.”
Jamie absorbs Abbie’s soulful monologues about music and how to treat women. He starts reading feminist books long before the feminist movement went mainstream. In his nightly chats with Julie he learns about the plight of being a teenage girl and has his heart broken by her over and over. Each of the women expresses themselves in different forms and communicates in different ways. Jamie is less interesting and not as defined as the other characters, but he works as a sort of Kuleshov effect where the women reflect onto him and back onto themselves. These are independent, strong and dimensional women, but they are — along with the title of the film — symbolic of a larger idea: women at a specific time in history, pushing at the edges of an era, but fading into the next along with the echoes of the 60s revolution.
Sporting the only notable Y chromosome is former 60s hippie, William (Billy Crudup), a tenant in their house who now works as a handyman and looks like Doc Sportello at the end of the decade. He too is unsure of what being a man is nowadays. His shaggy hair and denim shirt are remnants of a 60s ideology that was worn down by 70s culture and politics. Each of the characters in this surrogate family are lost in some way—mirroring 70s disillusionment—but Mills clicks them into place with a sense that this was all meant to be.
The film is relaxed and loose, but eloquent and insightful about its observations that are unique to each character — giving the film a rainbow of personal intimacy. They talk to each other and genuinely listen, as does Mills who pulls off the not so easy feat of making conversational dialogue feel cinematic. He rarely tiptoes into Sundance quirk and only occasionally sacrifices thematic weight for jokes. Mills articulates feelings through framing and stylistic techniques (narration, archival footage, blurring action) that are also in service of something greater than the characters. Each of the 4 characters rotating around Jamie have such richness to them that the switching of narrated perspectives gives the film an impassioned connectivity. The film is ultimately about ways we communicate to each other: emotionally, physically, spiritually.
As its laid back and seemingly shapeless California vibe dances along it reveals its shape to be more akin to a poem than a familial drama or coming of age film. Mid-film the group watches Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech where the President speaks about American’s materialism, empty hearts and search for meaning. While he’s speaking there’s a cut to Godfrey Reggio’s masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), a film that chronicles the beginning of earth before man and what mankind’s ambitions have done to it. Koyaanisqatsi‘s imagery in the context of Carter’s speech, and on the cusp of Reaganism, articulates the characters and many Americans grasping for understanding and purpose. It’s like a telescope revealing Mills’ ambition for the film.
Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
There’s a definite Fellini influence in Mills’ observational and formal camerawork with lots of natural light, but surprisingly, Reggio’s landscape opera is this film’s closest relative. Koyaanisqatsi‘s sense of time transfers over to 20th Century Women‘s and chronicles the rifts and meaning of the character’s relationships through their perspectives and feelings. Call it Comingofagesqatsi! Mills has made a film with the understanding that one’s story is a part of someone else’s story just as their story is a part of someone else’s and so on.
It’s too warm, anecdotal and broadly comedic leaning to fully conjure the pathos and scope of the decade (like Inherent Vice did with the 60s), but there’s a dense personal history woven through 20th Century Women‘s familial hangout vibe that organically hides its lofty ambitions and occasional cosmic reach. Like any great hangout film, you get to know the characters and by the end they feel like someone you’ve known your whole life. The difference here is that it’s framed as a recollection of memories and lost photographs—giving its hangout tone a melancholy coat because of the knowledge that they’ll fade away. As we learn more about them their perspectives become nostalgic—achingly so. But the film’s spirit always maintains warmth and seems content with the passage of time. Its use is reminiscent of Days Of Heaven‘s narration by a young Linda Manz, which initially sounds as though it’s taking place during the film, but eventually takes on a biblical wisdom that only decades of recollection could make sense of.
20th Century Women is memories told from beyond the grave through perspective and moments in time that were achingly personal. These perspectives from the beyond slowly take on a tone and language of someone who understands who people were in their lives and what they meant. This ethereal underling suggests there’s an order that connects people for significant moments—then they’re gone.
These characters inhabit 1979, a place in time that felt shapeless but was really on the crest of a fading ideology. Walking out of the theater I realized that not much has changed. History always returns to us with a new disguise and the world lightly shifts shape and echoes into pockets of culture to send lives rotating down different paths. It’s all there and then gone. You can see and feel this in the film’s waves crashing against the beach, the carousel of music, Jamie reading the stocks to his mother every morning, William molding clay over and over, Julie’s constant climbing up to Jamie’s room, and most achingly in the eternal voice-overs longing to return to the present.
In 20th Century Women Mike Mills attempts — often successfully — to make the abstract concept, “the passage of time,” into a narrative with its different stages of life staring back at themselves. Past, present, and future communicate with the human experience through 5 characters in 1979 California that smoke, drink, and listen to rock ‘n’ roll. But ultimately this is a movie made by man who loved his mom and the people who were important in his life. Such personal stories are what going to the movies is all about.