The whole film can be viewed as a consciousness-raising of sorts. While even new-wave French auteurs fall into predictable madeleine-inspired memory spirals riffing on (not to put too fine a point on it) their own sex lives, 20th Century Women takes the highly unusual tack of imagining sex, work, and relationships from various female vantage points.
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Mike Mills is something of a magician, distracting you with shiny moving objects while the real action takes place out of sight. 20th Century Women appears (in spite of its title) to be a conventional male coming-of-age, breaking-away saga, the kind of “independent” film Hollywood producers feel all too comfortable with. What’s more soothing and familiar than the story of a local teenage iconoclast-in-the-making, sowing his oats with some punk music/bicycling/photography/hot-rodding, some rule bending, and some nubile yet sensitive ass? From Rebel Without a Cause to the entire Richard Linklater oeuvre, this is as close as it gets to a Sure Thing.
The story of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), living in a Santa Barbara boardinghouse run by his single working mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), seems to fit this template perfectly. The film opens with Jamie in bed with his beautiful, slightly older female friend Julie (Elle Fanning), clearly looking to take it to the next level. We also get by-the-book rebellious drug-taking, skateboarding in empty swimming pools, and initiation by an older attractive woman. But the film veers off into unfamiliar territory indeed when instead of deflowering him, the Something Wild older woman, Abbie (Greta Gerwig with spiky punk-rock hair), lends him her copy of Sisterhood Is Powerful as part of an informal consciousness-raising session. He will learn about the primacy of the clitoral orgasm, straight from the book (and suffer a beating when he shares this insight with a skateboard Lothario bragging about his conquests).
Indeed, the whole film can be viewed as a consciousness-raising of sorts. While even new-wave French auteurs fall into predictable madeleine-inspired memory spirals riffing on (not to put too fine a point on it) their own sex lives, 20th Century Women takes the highly unusual tack of imagining sex, work, and relationships from various female vantage points. Where Proust gives us his childish version of his mother, a highly idealized, longed for, and finally disposable figure, somehow Mills uses his own adolescent perspective as the entry point to a full-length meditation on his mother.
20th Century Women is a kind of companion piece to Mills’ 2010 movie Beginners, about his father (Christopher Plummer) declaring himself both gay (at the age of 75) and diagnosed with terminal cancer. These events actually happened in Mills’ family, and the success of that film seems to have further emboldened him in the idea that people could somehow locate their own experiences in his individual family history. In fact, he’s taken it a step further here, since on the face of it his mother’s story is not nearly as striking as his father’s coming out: she’s a single mother piecing together a family of sorts among her boarders and friends and working as a technical draftsman. Her story works partly because it’s placed alongside that of two other “twentieth century women,” the young artistic punk played by Greta Gerwig and the detached Julie character, who has a lot of sex but doesn’t experience much pleasure.
The first and to me least interesting layer is that of the high school man-boy finding his way. Much more original and striking is the story of his mother Dorothea, who basically takes over the film with her biting asides and brisk stage entries: everyone else seems to be half-asleep by comparison. And Dorothea’s death is a light reflective shellacking over the whole thing. We are told by that same lilting, intrusive voice, first that she died of lung cancer (she evinces seriously committed pre-Surgeon General’s report-style smoking throughout); another moment we hear how she declined quickly; we see a list she made for him instructing him about her assets, but the list is just a bunch of illegible scrawls. This woman we’ve seen doing heavy woodworking restoring their decrepit Santa Barbara mansion has been chewed up by time. It’s no surprise that Mills has worked in graphic design and fashion, as well as directing music videos. He uses the techniques of those genres, like tonal and tempo shifts, bricolage, overlaid sound and shiny surfaces, to good effect here.
Although Mills brings a lot to the film, there’s no question that Annette Bening, as Dorothea, is the one who truly holds it aloft. She really inhabits this woman in her fifties, showing an offbeat sense of style that is strange but also attractive. She wears print silk blouses and enjoys Humphrey Bogart movies and popular music from the forties, which she pairs with jeans and Birkenstocks (as a woman of the future, the voice-over remarks with some irony). Mementos from the various eras define how she looks and sees the world, but we are always made aware she is an independent, wry thinker open to the Talking Heads and to inviting the young boarders in her house to school her son in their various feminist perspectives. It is her bracing presence that makes the film work as well as it does, and she deserves every ounce of the award season attention she’s getting.
It’s true that at times the movie can seem both aimless and over-busy with visual/sonic tricks from a career forged in music videos and commercials. And at times it veers to the precious, serving us an artisanal, hipster version of the seventies. There’s no question 20th Century Women is saturated with a kind of nostalgia for a time when people (especially 15-year-olds like Mills) enjoyed endless unclaimed hours in which to skateboard and wander, and even be bored without documenting said events on Instagram. But every period piece is really a referendum on the moment in which it is made. Whatever else we’ve lost, Mills makes a powerful case that the emancipation of women has left a bigger, more colorful world in its wake.
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Note: All images courtesy of A24. 20th Century Women opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 28 and is scheduled for wide release on January 20, 2017.