“You wish you were crazy”
There’s a lot to unpack in 20th Century Women, Mike Mills‘ look at lost souls adrift on paths towards happiness (if happiness even exists). For one he’s a man writing progressive feminists who in turn earnestly educate the two men in their lives how to be men. That alone takes you down corridors of psychological profundity that may actually be profound or simply a mask for the filmmaker’s own explanation that all men aren’t stereotypically single-minded. Because despite the title including the word “women,” this piece is ultimately about a fifteen-year old boy’s adolescent evolution and the widening separation between him and his single mother thanks to his newfound independence. These beautiful, intelligent, and courageous women show him that life is always more complicated than most willingly admit.
The boy in question is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is his mother, Julie (Elle Fanning) his best friend, and his father forever out of the picture. Mom owns a fixer-upper with two tenants: William the mechanic/handyman (Billy Crudup) and Abbie the aspiring photographer (Greta Gerwig). And they all live together in a sort of makeshift commune (Julie is over more often than not to escape her therapist mother), sharing giant meals and assisting in the troublesome moments, tragedies, and joyous occasions that plague them (and us) all. Everyone is at a crossroads whether they know it (Abbie, Julie, and Dorothea) or not (Jamie and William) and the ways in which they combat theirs are every bit as random, imperative, and heartwarming as you’d expect.
Mills is the man behind dramedies Thumbsucker and Beginners after all, the latter’s idiosyncratic style permeating throughout. Whereas still photography was used to an endearingly comical effect to deliver an idea of personal history in that one, however, it’s utilized with full severity here as an account of unequivocal real-life history impacting his characters. To some extent Mills has earmarked the year 1979 as a seminal turning point for Americans as an entity unto itself. Punk rock is capturing the hearts and minds of the youth, sexuality is breaking free from its Puritanical values, and the world around them seems to be in a constant state of civil revolution. This is the moment where his characters can either embrace the changes surrounding them or remain stuck behind.
Because it’s less a personal collage of images and text—Mills footnotes passages from essays, books, and even footage of Godfrey Reggio‘s Koyaanisqatsi—it does become somewhat preachy on his part. There ends up being a finality to its viewpoints that makes us believe what unfolds onscreen is very personal to him and his own upbringing. He’s telling us that you can become a man without a male influence teaching you the way. Not only that, you can become a better man because you’re able to understand what that label means from a feminine position to cultivate empathy and respect. The old idea of masculinity has become a façade solely for interactions between men. An idea of sensitivity, dignity, and compassion makes it so emotional strength trumps physical.
So these twentieth century women are in effect teaching Jamie how to be the kind of man they hope to find within a sea of the exact opposite. And they’re coming at him from different generational eras with Mom fearing she’s losing him because of the stupid things he does for fun (and not necessarily acting out like she thinks), Abbie attempting to teach him the empowerment owning taboos provides, and Julie desperately hoping to express how her not wanting to have sex with him means he’s more important to her than those she will. They’re searching for their own identities and using him as a sounding board to speak their frustrations knowing they won’t fall on deaf ears. He’s absorbing it all even if he’s unsure why.
In this way I guess the film is both about Jamie and not. He’s enduring the brunt of the women’s reflexive epiphanies, but he’s barely treading water with understanding them below surface appearances. He reads from the feminist manifestos Abbie provides and puts his mother in an easy box. Julie puts Dorothea in an easy box too, but from the perspective of a therapist. Everyone’s projecting because no one is truly expressing until a brilliant dinner scene devoid of inhibitions lets candor rule the evening. By spewing their fears and desires as though Jamie is a living diary, they’re in fact discovering who they want to be. For Abbie and Julie this is obvious being a twenty-something and teen respectively. But for Dorothea it’s crucial and perhaps unexpected.
Bening is amazing in the role—at once fiercely strong and drowning in insecurities. She overthinks everything on the outside and guards everything on the inside. Mills’ film is ultimately about Dorothea and Jamie accepting what their union was and still is despite personal evolutions within it. The rest is insight to help push them to that revelation and entertainment for us to experience along the way. Abbie and Julie provide Dorothea a glimpse at youth just like Jamie does and she hopes none make the mistakes she did. She wants to be “cool” and liberal as a parent, opening her son’s adolescence up to a group because she feels she may be failing him on her own. But growing pains don’t stop in adulthood. They may get worse.
That’s not to say Abbie and Julie are any less important to the film, though. Their growth resonates and parallels Dorothea’s perfectly. Add Jamie and William (who himself is stunted and unable to move beyond his own commitment issues) and 20th Century Women may bite off more than it can chew. Each character is given ample time and each finds a satisfying endpoint that’s authentic to the path they are paving, but the shear number is overwhelming nonetheless. Gerwig has never been better (indie quirk and superior airs are removed for honest, existential angst) and Fanning sheds that angelic innocence so many cast her to provide. Zumann holds his own with them all too, even if he can get lost in the mix as their prop.
I feel like the film is as poignant, personal, and intimate as Beginners before it, but the scope makes it difficult to accept it after only one viewing. It’s a dense exercise of emotions, catharsis, and perception that surely will become richer, more vibrant, and essential with subsequent viewings. It’s impossible to look beyond the layers of putting words and concepts into other people’s mouths (Mills into his female actors and their characters into their male counterparts) on first blush, though, because it’s all happening so fast. Is Mills mansplaining via female conduits or does he legitimately get it right? Hopefully the answer comes after watching it three more times on DVD. Presently I can say its heart is in the correct place and I enjoyed the ride.
 Annette Bening and Billy Crudup in 20TH CENTURY WOMEN. Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of A24.
 Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig in 20TH CENTURY WOMEN. Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of A24.
 Lucas Jade Zumann and Elle Fanning in 20TH CENTURY WOMEN. Photo by Gunther Gampine, courtesy of A24.