Writer and director Mike Mills’ previous film ‘Beginners’ was based on his father, and now, with ‘20th Century Women,’ he has turned the lens on his mother and the women he grew up with in this self-described love letter to the women who raised him. Mills has channelled his mother’s spirit into Annette Bening’s Dorothea, who lives with her fifteen year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman) and their lodgers Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup), in 1979 Santa Barbara. Single mother Dorothea has started to question if you can raise a man without a man, but she’s aware Jamie has no connection with mechanic William, who is a essentially good guy, yet has a sort of dim passivity and is a perfect example of the distant, disengaged type of man that Dorothea wants to avoid her son becoming. Instead, she turns to the people Jamie really likes and looks up to: punk spirited photographer Abbie and his close friend Julie (Elle Fanning), asking them to essentially help raise him as he navigates his teenage years.
The film has a brilliant narrative style, with little sections featuring voiceovers from a certain character about their life, as if introducing themselves, showing us what formed them, how they got to where they are now, and eventually, where they will end up. This could feel horribly expositional, but it never does, instead these sections are charming and add more depth to each character, who are each brilliantly developed and realised. Dorothea is free-thinking and strong-willed, deeply concerned that Jamie is happy and moral, yet she does little to change her own unhappiness. Julie has been close friends with Jamie since they were young – but just friends, something she firmly defends against his increasing feelings and desire for her. She seems worldly beyond her years, but we get the impression that this is a mask for a sense of bewilderment inside. She explores her sexuality throughout the film, enjoying the power sex gives her over boys, but simultaneously aware that she’s being used.
Amongst Abbie’s creative expression and passion for punk, she is a recovering cancer patient, an illness that cut short her creative lifestyle in New York, and caused her to return to place she had been so desperate to escape. She struggles with the news that she may be unable to have children, searchingly asking Dorothea what it’s like to be a mother. While it is Dorothea who has asked Abbie and Julie to look after Jamie, she equally stands in as a mother figure for them both, offering them the advice and guidance that they seem to have been unable to receive from their own mothers.
Abbie’s way of helping Dorothea ‘raise’ Jamie is to introduce him to bands like The Raincoats, as well taking him to bars and punk gigs. She also gives him feminist books, which Jamie eagerly devours and takes a real interest in. He doesn’t want to be like “the other guys.” Sensitive, yet still a little rebellious, earnest and empathetic, and different while still feeling realistic, Jamie is far from the teenage stereotypes we’re used to seeing on screen. When he corrects another boy about female sexuality, he gets beaten up. Abbie tells him it’s best to not correct guys about sex, to just go along with it even if you don’t agree with them, a sad reflection of stereotypical masculinity, one that rejects communication and insists on being right, on being an ‘alpha male.’ While Jamie is keen to reject this and forge his own identity with the encouragement of those around him, we see that the outside world unfortunately doesn’t share this forward-thinking view.
The generational divides between the characters is both fascinating and funny. Dorothea and William are puzzled by the scuzzy punk music Abbie listens to. “Why can’t it just sound pretty?” Dorothea asks. She was raised in the depression, as Jamie humorously uses as an excuse for many of the things she says and does. She trained as a fighter pilot during the second world war, but never made it into combat, and was the first female draughtsman at the architecture firm she works for. However, it was too early a time for her to truly make a difference. She says she’s not a feminist, but she clearly is, having certainly lead the life of one. Her unwillingness to use the word reflects a generation where feminism was still seen as fringe and ‘extreme.’ She isn’t so keen on Jamie reading feminist literature, yet he says he wants to work out how to be a good man to women – and isn’t this just what she wanted? These little contradictions and complexities are what make us human, and Mills’ characters are full of them.
Mills also provides excellent insight into female experience, which he most certainly learned from his upbringing with such strong and influential women around him. There’s a brilliant scene around the table with dinner guests, where Abbie says she is menstruating. A few people are alarmed at the word, and so Abbie keeps repeating it, questioning why they are so uncomfortable with it. Trying to break down the stigma, she makes the men and boys say it until they sound less scared of the word. Then it’s Julie’s turn, telling everyone how she lost her virginity at fourteen and how it hurt. It shocks them all, but it’s a powerful truth to speak. This is a film that’s full of warmth, humour, and tenderness, as well as providing great insight into generation gaps, gender roles, growing up in the culture of late 70’s America, and of course, the women who influenced a young Mills. What’s more, ‘20th Century Women’ answers Dorothea’s question: you certainly can raise a man without a man. Indeed, perhaps if we more often took the focus away from traditional ideas of masculinity and manhood, and just focused on basic human compassion regardless of gender, we might make it easier to help young men navigate growing up.
Watch the trailer below:
’20th Century Women’ is out in UK cinemas tomorrow, Friday 10th February 2017.