20th Century Women (2016)
Written & Directed by Mike Mills
Jamie is fifteen years old in 1979, living in a crumbling manor in Santa Barbara with his older mother, Dorothea. Residing as renters in Dorothea’s large home are Abbie, a twentysomething photographer & cervical cancer survivor and William, a carpenter/mechanic who is helping renovate the house. Jamie is desperately in love with his long-time best friend Julie, who refuses to have sex with him because she believes it would ruin their friendship. Dorothea becomes increasingly convinced that the generation gap is so vast that she cannot connect with Jamie any longer and solicits the help of Abbie and Julie in raising him into being a good man. What follows is a series of episodes where Jamie begins to develop a better understanding of women and what kind of man he wants to be. Dorothea also begins to learn about how differently women are defined in the late 1970s, considering herself a Bohemian but learning how much more open and progressive times have become.
Mike Mills is a director who came across my radar around 2003 when the documentary Meet Mike Mills was being aired on rotation on The Sundance Channel. The piece featured clips from some of Mills’ short films and an interview with him about his influences and personal aesthetics. It lodged him in my brain so that when Thumbsucker was released in 2005, I was very hyped about the film. Since then Mills has had ever increasing gaps between his films with Beginners (2010) and now 20th Century Women (2016). What you get with a Mike Mills picture is a very character-focused and not too concerned with a multi-act plot structure.
The element of 20th Century Women that will enrapture you are the performances, particularly Annette Bening and Great Gerwig. Gerwig has always been an actor I have felt conflicted about because she’s delivered some weak roles in other films. However, here she is matched with the right script and character, given space to develop Abbie into the character she wants. I have a strong revulsion towards the punk movement because it so often feels very tryhard and not genuine. Gerwig’s Abbie delivers an explanation of punk that won me over and allowed me to “get it.”
Even better is Annette Benning as Dorothea who steals the movie. There is a particular scene where characters are sitting around the table during a dinner party. There is tension between Dorothea and Abbie over the latter woman providing Jamie with feminist texts to read up. Abbie decides to push the envelope and starts a conversation about her first sexual experience and then eventually Julie joins in to talk about menstruation. Benning has many moments where all she is doing is reacting to hearing topics she believes make terrible dinner conversation. Her reactions are beautifully real and organic, Benning exudes the power of her craft in the quietest moments.
The only problem I had with 20th Century Women is that the characters are painted in such a rushed fashion. I wanted to spend more time with these people and learn more about them. While I was watching the film, I thought this would make a tremendous HBO-style television series. We get mini-spotlights on the main characters, but it never felt like enough. I can imagine having focused episodes that go into more depth about Julie and her relationship with her therapist mother or Abbie’s time in New York City and her experience with cervical cancer. Mills never delves into needless melodrama with his characters and I appreciate this because events feel like life, without clear-cut conclusions and people forced to learn, adapt, and keep living simply. If Mills developed this into a full-blown series, it would be wholly absorbing and would have me as a fan on day one.