20th Century Women (2016)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Mike Mills
Run Time
1 hour and 59 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Star Rating
★★★★4 out of 5

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 59 min.

Our contents Ratings: Violence 1; Language 4; Sex 6/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4


 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

Deuteronomy 6:6-7

Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray.

Proverbs 22:6

Director Mike Mills gives us an interesting perspective on parenting in his new film, set in the summer of 1979. It was a time of great change, with the Feminist Movement following hard upon the heels of the Civil Rights and the Gay Rights Movement. In Santa Barbara, California Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), the divorced, middle-aged single mother of 15-year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is deeply concerned over her son’s development into manhood. In the Scriptural passages above, it was assumed that the father would take the lead, assisted by the wife, but there is no husband in Dorothea’s life.

There is a man in her house, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who is helping Dorothea restore her large old house while boarding there. But rebuilding a house is far simpler than building a man. William, more interested in relating to Abbie than to Jamie, is not the man to help her with her question, “How do you be a good man?” So, she turns to the other boarder in her house, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and also to Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s s best friend at school. Each of them she thinks of as a “twentieth century woman.” She asks them to share their lives with her son, apparently thinking this will help in his maturation. It is important to note that when Dorothea asks for help she is not asking for them to bed down Jamie. She does not equate being a “good man” with possessing the knowledge of skillful sexual techniques. She begot Jamie while wedded to a man, but he was not the good man she wants her son to become. After they divorced, the father has not contacted his son for five years.

Jamie is not at all pleased with her request, angrily riding away on his skateboard when she tells him. He thinks he can manage without all the interference.

Julie is just a couple of years older than Jamie, and the magenta-haired Abbie a few years older than Julie. Abbie is a talented photographer whose current project is to take pictures of her possessions that she believes will reveal her nature. She loves dancing at a club, frequently taking along her two younger friends. She has a troubled relationship with her mother, the cause of which I will leave to you to discover.

Julie is so deeply committed to her friendship with Jamie that she wants to keep their relationship Platonic, even though her frequent sleeping with Jamie in bed tests his sexual restraint. After she has sex with another boy in the back seat of a car, she becomes worried because the boy came before he could withdraw. She worriedly informs her best friend about what might happen, and this leads to a somewhat humorous, but tense, sequence in which Jamie buys a pregnancy test kit at a drugstore and brings it home to her.

Julie, too, though discussing sex very frankly with Jamie at one point (she admits to never having an orgasm), is one who values friendship over sex, very unusual for most characters in Hollywood movies dealing with young people. She knows that at their age when passion gives way to coitus, the pair soon split up because of guilt or other reason, the lovers seldom again seeing each other. She does not want that to happen to her and Jamie.

In a sub-plot the deep bonds among the three women and Jamie provide support for Abbie during her bout with cervical cancer, supposedly beaten years ago, but suddenly reoccurring. There is also an interesting scene in which all of them are in their living room watching President Carter on TV give his “crisis of confidence” speech. William’s response to the dark tone of the speech is that Carter is screwed up. But Dorothea says, “Beautiful,” perhaps seeing it as a description of how she has been feeling in the changing world. Pay close attention to the camera cut-aways as Carter is speaking. One of them, while he says “freedom,” is of a red bi-plane soaring through the sky. This refers to one of Dorothea’s unfulfilled ambitions in the past, and the plane will reappear at the end of the film.

Mike Mills, who also wrote the script, reportedly based Dororthea on his own remarkable mother. As played by Annette Bening, she is a complex, caring mother, one of the most interesting screen mothers to be seen outside a Susan Sarandon movie. She plans ahead in regard to shaping her son into a good man, and yet can be impulsive. When, at the beginning of the film, her car catches on fire, she invites the firemen who rushed to the scene to come to her birthday party that night. That they do show up is a tribute to her earnest persuasiveness, also evident in Julie and Abbie’s agreeing to help in her son-raising project. That she is successful we see later when Jamie himself says, “I want to be a good man.”

One of my disappointments with this year’s Oscar nominations is that this film, and Annette Bening in particular, was passed over. Some of the promiscuous sex of some of the characters might be unsettling to some viewers, but do not let this cause you to make the same mistake as the Academy and ignore it. Some of Dorothea’s observations are worth remembering, such as, “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that.” Or her comment that the people who help you might not be the people you thought or want, but the people who show up.

There are so many insightful scenes and subplots that I have been able to describe just a few in this review. The flashbacks are told in voice-over by Jamie mainly, with the women also contributing. They speak not only of their past, but even look ahead to the future as if they had traveled in a time machine, revealing the fate of each one at the end of the century.

With the skillful insertion of newsreels, archival photos, and such activities as the women’s smoking, Jamie participating in the new skate board craze, and a great deal of references to feminist literature and Judy Blume, the film reflects well the time between the raucous Sixties and the soon-to-come Reagan era. All the characters are well delineated, even William, who no father figure or role model for Jamie, is an interesting carry-over from the Hippy era. This is one of the most original coming of age films you are likely to see this year.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.

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