Editor’s Note: This review contains plot spoilers.
It’s a shame that 20th Century Women comes to us at the beginning of a long winter; it’s a summer movie through and through. It drifts and wanders, days turn to nights, but not much happens. What really could happen, though to a teen in the summer of 1979 in cozy Santa Barbara? He could party perhaps, or fall in love, or follow a bunch of other dumb teens in a dare that lands him in the E.R. Even turning on the television at night and watching Jimmy Carter’s poetic “Crisis of Confidence” speech earns a shrug. The energy crisis, and the rest of the world, feels far away.
Although he’s ostensibly the autobiographical stand-in for director Mike Mills, fifteen year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman), isn’t at the center of 20th Century Women. In truth, no one is. Mills’ movie is generous in fitting in all the backstories, struggles and resolution of all its main characters: Jamie’s mother, Dorothea, (Annette Bening), who chain-smokes and divorced Jamie’s father; Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a recovering cancer survivor behind on her rent; Julie (Elle Fanning), two years older than Jamie and an amateur therapist, who sneaks into Jamie’s bedroom to sleep (but not have sex) with him; and one-time hippie William (Billy Crudup), the group’s handyman, who still makes his own shampoo. Altogether it’s an ensemble cast that can rival any film released in 2016.
What brings this impressive group together is a home (all of them frequent Dorothea’s decaying mansion, which seems to have a literal open doors policy) and feminism. Worried about raising her son without a father, Dorothea enlists Julie and Abbie to teach Jamie how to “be a man.” Julie tries to show Jamie how to smoothly smoke a cigarette. “Guys don’t look like they’re thinking about what they look like,” she tells him. Abbie takes Jamie to local bars and teaches him to dance with older women. Exhausting their direct methods, Abbie and Julie move on to making the personal political. Julie rebuffs Jamie’s desire to have sex with her in a climactic hotel scene. Abbie donates books from her college career to Jamie. In quick succession, he devours Our Bodies Our Selves, Sisterhood is Powerful, and The Politics of Orgasm. We don’t really see the Jamie that emerges out of this feminist book club, but we don’t really need to. He’s located firmly in the director’s chair.
The gender politics of 20th Century Women are smoothly progressive, as uncontroversial as almost everything else in the film. The makeshift family under Dorothea’s roof fights but always makes up. No one dreams too big. One thinks of the vivid description from a Linda Paston poem: “I waited for my life to start for years… where the only breeze was the rustle of pages turning, and lives rose and set in the violent colors of suns.” Yet Mills’ technique doesn’t give the film the naturalism of Olivier Assayas’s tale of post-May 68 youth Something in the Air (2013) or Lisa Cholodenko’s even more similar family comedy The Kids Are All Right (2010). Mills interrupts the progression of conventional scenes with rapid montages, flashbacks narrated by voice-over and still images. The result is that many great moments emerge (a fumbling sexual encounter between Abbie and William, the strained maturity of Julie in a car conversation with Dorothea, the graceful dancing between Dorothea and William when they discover the Talking Heads song, “The Big Country,”), but the film may not transcend the sums of its parts. Mills loves the small moments of life too much to let them add up to any grand narrative. He would rather just watch the memories float by, like a slideshow at a birthday party or graduation.
Mills’ nostalgia is a self-aware one. Jamie describes Dorothea as being “raised by the the Depression,” as if that explains every last thing about his mother. While Dorothea gently cuts Jamie’s hair, she wishfully pines for Humphrey Bogart in her next life. Dorothea’s favorite film happens to be Casablanca and Mills borrows the film’s iconic song “As Times Goes By” for 20th Century Women’s end credits. Besides Dorothea, Mills’ characters’ aren’t naturally nostalgic. Abbie’s cervical cancer, for instance, developed from her mother taking DES during her pregnancy in the 1950s. That’s a past that shouldn’t be remembered fondly.
With a succession of montages, Mills manages to pull all the loose threads together into a dazzling ending. We learn that Julie went off to NYU and fell out of contact with Jamie. Abbie overcame her cancer, found a husband and had two boys. Dorothea died in 1999, Jamie tells us, from a bout of lung cancer. But the two decades before were a time of joy, as she found a second husband, a man who gave her the same birthday gift each year, the opportunity to fly a small plane into the beautiful California skies. So what if Dorothea died stockpiling gold for Y2K, years before she could meet Jamie’s son, her grandson. Mills honors his mother by turning back time to show her in the present tense. The final shot, of Dorothea smiling up in the air, is an act of love.