20th Century Women’s ensemble of both men and women from age 15 to 55 might cynically be read as a strategy to attract wide audiences by offering several demographics a character to identify with. Yet Mike Mills’ first feature since 2011’s Beginners gradually builds to transcend narrative cinema and approach the form of an essay film, synthesising and to some extent analysing twentieth-century events and popular culture through the lens of one alternative family unit.
It may be a counterculture-referencing, sun-splashed California-set family drama starring Annette Bening as a non-traditional matriarch (like Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right), yet 20th Century Women’s complex and wide-ranging historicisation lends it a staggering originality of vision and viewpoint. The film is complexly embedded in the contexts of 1979 and the wider twentieth century. At the heart of this is the character of Dorothea (Bening), loosely based on Mills’ own mother, and exactly the sort of developed unclassifiable and somewhat impenetrable ‘older’ female role Hollywood should be producing much more of. Dorothea’s rejection of the second-wave feminist theory her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) reads at the behest of their photographer lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is symptomatic of her refusal to be pigeonholed, and of the film’s celebration of her complexity. Rather than attempting a warts-and-all portrait of his mother, Mills has crafted a contemplation on his inability, as a teenager and as an adult, to make sense of her.
20th Century Women is rife with such rich detail, in terms of narrative, character, and form. The 1979 milieu is deeply textured and (re)imagined, from the generically diverse soundtrack, to the discussion of punk sub-genres and underground culture, to the vintage cars lovingly restored by Dorothea’s other lodger, William (Billy Crudup). Both Crudup and Gerwig also starred in the recently released Pablo Larraín biopic Jackie. Despite that film’s widespread critical acclaim (a notable and perceptive exception being Sight & Sound), both actors were given little to work with, and here Mills’ script enables each of them to achieve much more nuance. Gerwig gives a soulful performance, embodying a more openly vulnerable and wounded character than she has since 2010’s Greenberg, and powerfully communicating Abbie’s conflicting melancholy and lust for life.
Initially, Mills’ collaging of archive photography with more naturalistic filmmaking is an abrupt and jarring presence, but as the weight of cultural reference builds significance emerges. As brought to light in Terry Gross’ characteristically excellent Fresh Air interview with Mills, much is made of the historical distance between Dorothea and Jamie. Dorothea – as the film continually humorously notes – was a child of the depression, whereas Jamie has grown up on the other side of the chasm of World War II, the swinging sixties and the women’s movement (to name but a few catalysts of cultural change). This rift between them is neatly visualised in the opening, in which Dorothea’s decrepit car, a relic of the past long since left behind by her ex, literally burns itself out. Bening’s Dorothea is cast as a sort of anthropological woman out of time, with an insatiable curiosity for the passions and interests of her younger housemates. The romanticised image of harmonious shared dwelling, however, is one of the few aspects of 20th Century Women that doesn’t quite convince.
Despite the breadth of its cultural reference and its somewhat unconventional fusing of distinct cinematic modes, 20th Century Women finds room for humour too. But rather than any throwaway gags or inconsequential moments of light relief, Mills’ comedy is another strand of the film’s period recreation, often serving to send up hippyish California through parodic commentary on emerging therapy techniques. The daughter of a therapist and Dorothea’s neighbour, Julie (Elle Fanning) is the final member of the ensemble cast, and the subject of a hysterically dark and illuminating dinner scene. This scene, the closest the film has to a big set-piece, also engenders a brilliant Gerwig skit which revolves around her attempt to liberate/humiliate her male companions.
20th Century Women comes close to being an antidote to Hollywood’s masculinist hegemony, beginning with its title which emphasises the dominant female forces of the unconventional family unit. Mills gender-flips familiar tropes, for instance by having Abbie encourage Jamie to be honest and stand up for what he wants – to be more than friends with Julie and have her acknowledge the significance of their relationship. The paradigm of male lover as ‘tutor’ to a younger female is also subverted in Dorothea’s attitude toward William and in Abbie’s coaching of Jamie. The subversiveness is compounded by the fact that neither woman is romantically interested in the younger man she advises. It’s a little disappointing then, that in 20th Century Women’s future-gazing finale, Abbie is consigned to a highly conventional and slightly out of character domestic family life. Still, in the triptych of Julie, Abbie, and Dorothea, Mills offers a partial image of the diversity of directions a twentieth-century woman might take. For rumination on a few more, and a step forward into the twenty-first century, watch 20th Century Women alongside Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming Certain Women.