Stirring and bittersweet, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women proved to be not just a heart-rending tale of the metamorphoses of modern women, but also an intriguing exploration of sexuality and identity. The film is loosely modelled after Mills’ own childhood and takes place in Santa Barbara in 1979, a time where psychedelics, cigarettes and sex ruled the punk scene and the lives of hormonal teens.
Without giving too much away, the events are told through the naïve and boyish eyes of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old on the cusp of adulthood. The film exhibits a perfect balance between slight comedy, romance and drama that all coalesces into one big coming-of-age tale. However, rather than focusing on the protagonist’s ascent into adulthood, the film centres more on the women who help him reach that point and their impact on his life. We ultimately follow the ebb and flow of Jamie’s life as he deals with being surrounded by his unhappy single mother, a brazen photographer and a troubled teenage girl. In the hopes of properly ushering Jamie into manhood, his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) enlists the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to teach him the ways of the big bad world.
Fanning delivers a stunning performance as the angelic yet ironically unchaste 17-year-old Julie, who was the aspect of 20th Century Women that I found the most conspicuous and in a way, the most charming. After all, what person isn’t captivated by a provocative and shameless teenager with a penchant for trouble? As Jamie’s first unrequited love and experience with the dreaded friend zone, the complicated relationship between Julie and Jamie illustrates the bittersweet aspects of friendship, adoration and youth. This relationship is something that resonates with almost everyone. It reminds us of our first love and heartbreak – it makes the relationship feel real and relatable and not just like another teenage crush. Ultimately, her character romanticises the underlying theme of sexual promiscuity in a way that isn’t tacky or vulgar and introduces a character that was more than just a young girl acting out against her methodical therapist mother. Instead, Julie represents the reclamation of female sexuality and serves as a exemplar for young women in overcoming sentiments of shame, fear and judgement.
Jamie’s mother, Dorothea, is a refreshingly forthright and candid character that breaks the audience away from the teenage angst of Jamie and Julie, and allows us to focus on more existential underlying themes. With Dorothea, our fears of adulthood are epitomised. She is a woman of forgotten opportunities and quiet domesticity, uncertain of her happiness or even the point of it. To me, she represented the things I did not want to be as a woman in her fifties – cynical, blunt (although this is quite comedic) and at times, narrow-minded. However, despite these ideas, Mills also exposes us to the contradiction of femininity and the struggle between traditionalism and unorthodoxy through her character. While Dorothea is quite lenient with her son and does not care much for niceties, she is shown to have more conservative values that chafe against those of the feminist movement. Throughout the film, it is made clear that Dorothea represents something more than just a single mother struggling to connect with her son. Instead, she symbolises the beginning of female independence – a woman on the verge of conservatism and non-conformity, unsure of where she belongs in a rapidly modernising world.
Having been sandwiched between the intrigues and complications of Dorothea and Julie, Gerwig’s character Abbie appeared to be a little tame; functioning as a buffer between Dorothea’s pre-war generation and Julie’s unruly youth. With her declining health and her nonconformity, Abbie could have been portrayed as a more prominent character. That being said, I think this may have been a smart choice. Not every human being has it all figured out and is incredibly outrageous, independent and unique, so why should all the characters be? Abbie is a woman with a decidedly normal personality against which the others contrast, though at times she can be a little aggressive (refer to the menstruation scene, promise it’s not what it sounds like). She only stands out when she wants to challenge another character’s thinking. In this way, Abbie proves her significance and place within Jamie’s life, as she is the first person to introduce him to the feminist movement and ignite his awareness of feminist issues.
Given the title and the dominant female cast, I prayed that this film wouldn’t turn out to be a glamorised and tacky sermon about feminism. I was afraid that the film would be too preachy, which I was certain would destroy the artistic significance of it all. Despite these fears, the film is worth the watch and quite rewarding. However, 20th Century Women is quite steadfast and lethargic, so if you’re the type of person who enjoys a fast-paced film with plenty of compelling and fascinating plot-twists or climaxes, then this film probably isn’t for you.