20th Century Women (2017)
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Cinematographer: Sean Porter
Producer: Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, and Youree Henley
by Jon Cvac
When thinking of suburban angst films, the first that come to mind are The Ice Storm (1997), American Beauty (1999), In the Bedroom (2001), and Thumbsucker; a series of films I checked out early into my cinephilia which provided that first sense of connection between the medium and my own life. All of these films were released within the same decade, seeming to roll out in rapid fashion. I can’t remember much from Thumbsucker other than the obvious and that it had an indie movie twin with The Chumscrubber (2005); the latter of which I remember nothing about, but still own on DVD.
20th Century Women is by the same director as Thumbsucker, Mike Mills, who’s Beginners (2010) went on to earn Christopher Plummer an Oscar nomination, though I forget again what it was exactly about. I’m afraid Mills might have produced a similar situation for the third time. I liked 20th Century Women, and Annette Benning gives an incredible performance; fully deserving of her Oscar nomination, but I was left wondering what the story was about exactly; other than some reflection on both a period in time and a bit of autobiography.
The story follows three women and one male character: Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), Julie Harman (Elle Fanning), and Dorothy Fields (Annette Bening) and her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothy Fields was a flapper back in the day, having Jamie when she was past forty, now divorced and running a boarding house, renting it out to both Abbie and a middle-aged carpenter-artist-hippie William (Billy Crudup) who fixes up the house in exchange for cheaper rent. Jamie is becoming hormonal, having gotten friend-zoned by the otherwise promiscuous Dorothy Fields who sleeps in his bed every night, wanting to spend as little time at home where her psychologist mother subjects her to a barrage of therapy sessions.
The four narratives satellite around Dorothy’s story which is that she’s an aging woman who chain-smokes, and in a series of flashbacks explains that she’s going to die before the new Millenium from lung cancer; told through a strange voice over as the narrator rants off a bunch of historical events.
Each character gets one of these wrap ups, allowing us to learn about what they’re going through - in this case, that Dorothy went to NYU and started dating a professor, got diagnosed and then beat cervical cancer, destroying her ovaries in the process and causing her to get dumped by the professor, where she then moved to Santa Barbara. I’m becoming a massive Gerwig fan, thinking back to seeing her in Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and how incredible it is to see how far she’s come; she somehow embodies a contradiction - appearing as someone that’s spacy and slow while constantly revealing an extraordinary amount of depth, intelligence, or creativity; creating strange eccentric characters without ever falling victim to archetype or trope. I’m certain that she will go on to provide some of the greatest roles of her generation.
Abbie introduces Jamie to feminism and the many writers who embraced the cause; allowing Jamie to understand certain ideas about sex and social position. He learns about the clitoris and passes, ideas about selfish love, and passes them onto his friends and schoolmates who for some reason beat the shit out of him. In the film’s best scene, Jamie reads a passage to his mom about the writer’s existential experience of becoming an older woman and the sense of worthlessness it contains. It’s more permissible for men can enter into relationships with younger women, whether because of social constructs or evolutionary reasons, while older women become less attractive; creating a deep sense of loneliness in the process. Dorothy wondered if the passage is about her. Jamie says no, but the two know it is.
I admire Mike Mills' attempt to integrate the stories of three strong female characters (and I mean strong as in complex/interesting characters not some comment on their mental or physical strength which I can’t believe I now have to start qualifying). Abbie, Dorothy, and Julie were all complex individuals, but they all seemed to be characters I’ve seen before; saved by Gerwig and Fanning’s performances, but still not all too coherent. At times he wanted to be some feminist warrior, and yet the women all seemed in service to Jamie and his discovering its principles.
There was no thread to the story; abandoning plot to instead focus on a bunch of different philosophies and how they operated at this particular moment in history. I understand that it was attempting to explore a nascent period of women’s second-generation liberation, but I think it could have benefited from perhaps flipping Jamie and Julie’s characters; allowing Jamie to operate as a satellite; perhaps as a guy who’s a self-proclaimed feminist with only a cursory understanding versus Julie who’s struggling to explore her body and learn what it means to be a modern woman in a rapidly changing world. It all felt like a bunch of fragments, trying to cram far too much history into a narrative that didn’t need so much. I’s a noble effort from Mike Mills, but this is the type of story where I think a woman is much better equipped to tell it.
BELOW: The dangers of learning about the vagina
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