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‘20th Century Women’

Jan. 17, 2017
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Seen from above in the opening scene of 20th Century Women, Santa Barbara, Calif., is a flat, one-story town of low ambitions. It’s an indistinct backdrop for an unusual film that slips out of the normal templates for movie storytelling. 

But perhaps more than a story, 20th Century Women is simply a milieu inhabited by a handful of characters with enough dimension to feel fully human, unlike the stick figures that fill most Hollywood productions. Writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners) comes from indie filmmaking and imbues 20th Century Women with an indie filmmaker’s respect for reality on a human scale. However, the movie’s title may be misleading. Of the five main characters, only three are women. The film might instead have been called 1979 after the year of its setting, which Mills establishes as a time of transition (but when is time not in transition?). 

20th Century Women

Annette Bening

Lucas Jade Zumann

Directed by Mike Mills

Rated R

The five characters are 15 to 55 in age; although only two are related by blood, all live under one roof. Dorothea (Annette Bening), a divorced mom, is raising her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and rents rooms to 20-something punk rocker Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and philosophical ex-hippie William (Billy Crudup). Jamie’s friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), climbs up to the second floor and sneaks into his room most nights for a sleepover. But they’re not making love or anything else. “Friends can’t have sex and still be friends,” Julie insists. She has a point. 

As a child of the Great Depression, Dorothea had dreams not easily fulfilled by women of her generation. She’s a supportive, perhaps even permissive mother, yet has reached that stage when the once companionable relations with her child have turned daunting, even hurtful. Julie is testing her expanding résumé of experiences with lessons from books on the vagaries of sex and romance and the distinction between love and being in love. A former art student inseparable from her Nikon camera, Abbie explains that she dyed her hair red after seeing David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. She exposes Jamie to feminist ideas and a greater awareness of women’s perspectives. 

The details are strikingly true to the era. When Dorothea is dismayed by the caustic music of The Raincoats, Abbie explains that the band’s “passion is bigger than their tools”—as good a defense of punk rock as any. Everyone is vaguely aware that cigarettes can kill yet most everyone smokes anyway.

Dorothea’s household is a microcosm of convergence as the Greatest Generation grapples with its children, an already old counterculture encounters a rising alternative scene and Jamie awkwardly stumbles from boyhood toward manhood. 20th Century Women is elegantly edited and composed. Periodic post-facto voiceovers are heard from major characters, their thoughts woven subtly through dialogue in the present tense. “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world,” Dorothea tells her son. He will learn that lesson soon enough.


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