20th Century Women is refreshing, beautiful, and feminist. Director and writer Mike Mills takes us back to 1979 Santa Barbara: punk is on the rise and feminism is seeping into the mainstream. He brings to life his teenage self in this semi-autobiographical tale, yet focuses firmly on the narratives of three strong women close to him at the time. What makes this provocative film remarkable is that it doesn’t fall back on the usual cliché female roles—instead portraying lives closer to what women actually experience. Mills nails it.
Mills paints his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) as wise, stunning, and- refreshingly- true to her age. She is a free spirit who invites acquaintances to her house for dinner parties. A product of the depression, she is a woman well ahead of her time, as one of the first woman to attend flight school and the only lady at her male-dominated job. Dorothea keeps her distance from men, including her frustrated teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who wants freedom from her while also desperately wanting to get to know her.
Dorothea is the type of parent who encourages critical thinking. She writes fictitious notes to get Jamie out of school and is always inspiring him to question things, especially his role as a man. She discourages him from thinking he has to be the hero of every problem. However she struggles to relate to him; his world, filled with punk rock clubs and screaming music, is foreign to her. Her parental frustrations are more than just generational: a divorced mother, with no potential male role model in sight, she wonders how to raise a modern man who is in touch with his emotions.
Feeling like she alone isn’t enough, Dorothea brings two other women into his upbringing. She enlists the help of her boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a passionate and artistic 24-year-old, who loves Bowie and is a way-too-young survivor of cervical cancer; and Julie (Elle Fanning) an at times self-involved, angsty and promiscuous teenage girl, who sneaks up to Jamie’s room every night. She comes solely for warmth and comfort, which drives the horny teenager up the wall.
At Dorothea’s request, Abbie and Julie bring Jamie into their lives, and he becomes intimately acquainted with the uglier side of being a woman. He accompanies Abbie to her cancer check-ups and is there for her ups and downs. He listens (at first unwillingly) about how a boy came inside of Julie, even after she asked him not to. Jamie buys a home pregnancy test for her, and together they wait the long painful two hours to discover its outcome.
Abbie gives Jamie feminist literature, including Our Body, Ourselves, giving Jamie an education in women's sexual needs unlike that of most teenage boys. He struggles emotionally; he wants to be a man that satisfies women and doesn’t cause them grief, but it’s unknown territory. He goes to his mother to confide, and Dorothea backs away, becoming fearful of her son’s rapid transformation into a feminist. She attempts to wrestle the control of mentoring back from Abbie, and asks her to stop giving him “hardcore feminist texts.” Dorothea is full of contradictions: she wants her son to have liberal values but also wants to maintain her distance. If becoming a feminist means Jamie understands her better, than she wants no part of it.
Without the traditional climatic scene and thrilling emotions, the movie hinges on the emotion and the question of whether Dorothea will take down her protective barriers. All Jamie really wants is to be close to her.
The film is a work of art, with psychedelic effects and beautiful imagery of Californian summers in a different era. It captures a relatively peaceful moment in time, before the onslaught of Reagan, AIDS, and the internet. Even though it is nostalgic at times, the narratives of Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie are fresh, progressive, and more relevant than ever, and for the most part, they shy away from Hollywood clichés. Dorothea doesn’t fall into the selfless, overtired mother cliché, while Abbie and Julie are not reduced to sexualized roles usually given to young women. Their stories have color, filled with pain and personal growth.
But for all 20th Century Women's cliche-busting feminist elements, some may find its ending too traditional.
20th Century Women is a step forward for women in film. Three female leads with multi-faceted stories are groundbreaking. But clearly there is still progress to be made before we truly reflect the realities of what women experience.
Check out the trailer below:
Photos courtesy of A24
20th Century Women is premiering at the New York Film Festival. It will open in theaters on December 25.
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