20th Century Women (2016)

Directed by Mike Mills


Mike Mills’ previous film (2010’s Beginners) is one of my all time favorites, and I think 20th Century Women might be even better.  Like his last film this one is deeply personal and deeply lathered in a sense of time and space.  Using some unconventional storytelling techniques, multiple breaks of the fourth wall, Mills tells a very specific story about a boy’s relationship with his mother, but the effect is that he appeals to a broader recognition of how time passes by.  This isn’t just about Jamie and Dorothea, it’s about how we all grow up, about the people who influence us for small, concentrated periods of time and then who move on in a different direction.  None of the relationships in 20th Century Women last, but that’s okay.

This is an optimistic film despite the fact that all the characters go their own way and grow apart.  This depiction of the way their lives deviate has nothing to do with their individual person to person relationships but more with the overwhelming power of time.  Think of your best friend in fifth grade or even your relationship with a grandparent.  At some point they all come to an end, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t worthwhile.

At the end of 20th Century Women, each character tells us in voiceover what happens to them in the years following the end of this movie.  Set in 1979, Dorothea (Annette Bening) tells us that she died from lung cancer in 1999.  Her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) tells us that he finally had a child of his own, following his mother’s death.  The other three central cast members, whose lives orbit the large, dilapidated home shared by Jamie and Dorothea, tells us similar stories.  Julie (Elle Fanning) went to NYU, fell in love with Nicholas and then moved to Paris and elected not to have children.  Abbie (Greta Gerwig) remained in Santa Barbara, got married two years later and eventually had two sons even though she was told she couldn’t have children.  William (Billy Crudup) married a year later, got divorced, and then married a second time.

These brief character profiles have nothing to do with the plot of the movie, concerning Dorothea’s worry that her son needs help learning how to be the right kind of man, but they have a profound effect that both contextualizes the moment by moment intensity of a given scene as well as celebrating that intensity.  These strong emotions, particularly as felt by a teenager like Jamie, won’t matter months or years later, but they matter now.  The point isn’t to belittle or overly dramatize these moments but instead just to portray life as it is.  You look too closely at one thing, feel something too strongly, and before you know it the years have gone by.

In 1979 Santa Barbara, Jamie and Dorothea live in a large, old home with roommates William and Abbie.  Julie is the seventeen year old girl that fifteen year old Jamie is in love with.  Almost every night she sneaks over to sleep next to him, continually and politely rebuffing his somewhat innocent sexual advances.

When Jamie falls unconscious for nearly thirty minutes after participating in a particularly strange fad alongside his friends, his mother begins to worry that he’s not adequately thinking for himself.  She enlists the other three people in their lives to help her raise her son.

This sets in motion a light sense of plot, but it’s all character driven.  None of the story matters or would even take place if it wasn’t for the nature of Dorothea and the people around her.  Like in Beginners, Mills peppers his film with fourth wall-breaking moments to help enlighten the sense of who these characters are.  Dorothea, based in part on his own mother, was raised during the Great Depression, as Jamie repeatedly notes, and this cultivated in her a sense of community, of the village chipping in to help each other out.

In beautiful sequences of abstract voice over, a character tells us about another, complete with still images reflecting what the narration is saying.  When we’re told that Dorothea wanted to be a pilot, we’re shown a shot of a plane.  In another scene, when she visits a punk concert to see what it’s all about, we don’t necessarily see the punk performers, but we do see still images of past punk performances, immediately putting this ‘present’ moment in a historical context.

And everything about this film puts the story in a historical context.  There’s the period piece setting, of course, but also a very clear sense that everything these people are experiencing has already happened, not just because this took place 37 years before the release of the film, but because we’re told so much about who these people were and who they will become.  The ‘who’ that they are within the film’s plot feels as weighted as the ‘who’ they were before and will soon become.  Do I sound crazy?  The emphasis is taken off of the now even as the now is celebrated.  We should enjoy and delight in their characters, their decisions, their observations whether flawed or accurate, but we should  also understand that this moment in time is as fleeting as the past feels and is as forthcoming as the future.

To get back to the story, Dorothea doesn’t think she is doing enough to raise her son, particularly with their father out of the picture.  She hopes William can be a strong male presence in Jamie’s life, but the two hardly speak.  After she approaches Abbie and Julie with this idea, they will slowly start to try and introduce Jamie to the world.

He is taken to punk concerts, given a beer or two, told to read about sex from a woman’s perspective, etc.  Jamie takes to all of this with curiosity, but as his advances towards Julie never add up, he starts to grow more and more tired.  The feedback given to him by Abbie and the others in his life start to come into conflict with each other, and this leads to a quiet boiling point where Jamie runs away from a hotel room he shares with Julie because she has rebuffed his latest advance.

What’s the point to all this growth if he still can’t be with her?  It’s not a very explosive finale, and in fact the entire plot is very quiet, this despite the fact that the movie opens with a car burning in a parking lot.

I suppose this is to remind you that there is a lot going on under the surface, within any one individual.  To Jamie, this is an explosive story, but to everyone else he’s just a boy figuring life out.  When we zoom out at the end of the story and are told about the events over the course of years in the span of a few seconds, it’s a sobering reminder of how explosive something can feel and how quickly it can be glossed over.

The plot ends with all of the characters making nice.  Jamie and Julie remain friends, and everyone is happy.  Jamie and his mother go for a drive and share a nice moment together before we’re told how Dorothea eventually passes away and how everyone moved on with their lives.  Though the relationships end, as so many things do, what matters is what you carry with you, how you grow as a person.

Mike Mills tells this story with several other interesting techniques.  Several shots are sped up so that the smallest of movements now take place rapidly and awkwardly.  If a character is walking peacefully, it now looks almost robotic.  He will similarly speed up footage of cars driving down the ocean-side highway, complete with a 70’s-era glow that makes you think of psychedelics.  Something about all of this feels both literal and symbolic.

There are all those moments in which he breaks the fourth wall and chooses to show us archival footage of a time or place, helping us better understand this time and place as well as the way our own time and place will change.  The film almost feels like an anthropological study of humanity.  In one scene he will show a couple shots from Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 experimental film I have not yet seen which is described as “a collection of expertly photographed phenomena with no conventional plot. The footage focuses on nature, humanity and the relationship between them.”

He will reference other works of art, namely different music as he seamlessly weaves together punk music and older, somber pieces from the likes of Benny Goodman.  Through this use of sound and of image, Mills is much more devoted to the emotional through line of the story than to plot, if that wasn’t already clear.  He’s following the emotion and the harder to grasp sense of the story.  It’s all a feeling, both in terms of individual character desires and in a broader sense, looking at nostalgia.

As Jamie longs for Julie, Mills himself (though maybe I’m attaching too much meaning to the man behind the film) might long for this time period.  Jamie’s attraction to the girl next door is, when you zoom out, now just an attraction to this moment in one’s life.  All the ups and downs, it’s all made okay by time flying by.  None of the severe emotional swings feel so severe when you’re looking back on it.

At its core, though, 20th Century Women is about the women in Jamie’s life.  Dorothea, Abbie and Julie were based on Mills’ own mother, sister and adolescent friend, respectively.  In interviews he has indicated just how much of this was taken straight from his own life and the lives of people around him, and it matters that each of the women is from a different generation, though Abbie’s and Julie’s may overlap.

As much as Mills celebrates these individuals, he celebrates their differences, woven into them by the time in which they grew up.  At various points in the story he will tell us the year each character was born, including William as well, and indicate that their development was influenced as much by the time they were raised as by the people who raised them.

And the same goes for Jamie, his upbringing and development being cultivated through the plot of the film.  The entire story could perhaps be condensed into a thirty second monologue like the ones for the secondary characters.  Because we see his growth with such detail, we can better picture how each of those characters experienced a similarly involved period in their own development.

Up Next: Grizzly Man (2005), Storytelling (2001), Taxi Driver (1976)

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