Milo Garner reviews Mike Mills’ latest.
Set in a saturated Santa Barbara circa 1979, 20th Century Women is a semi-autobiographical work built around director Mike Mills’ memories of his mother. Dorothea, played by a sterling Annette Bening, is a single mum raising her adolescent son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) who finds herself in need of support. Instead of finding a man she recruits two young women to do the job.
Why she feels she needs help in raising her son ties into one of the main themes of the film: of masculinity in a world where such a concept is becoming ever more uncertain. In the wake of second wave feminism and women’s lib in general, by the late 1970s the position of men in society was becoming less clear. What did it mean to be a good man? To be a good man does one need a male role model? In answer to the second question Dorothea says no, and so asks Jamie’s childhood-friend-he’s-clearly-in-love-with Julie (Elle Fanning) and arsty lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to teach him about the world. The idea of learning about masculinity from women is initially novel, but becomes well-established as the film goes on. Julie, on one hand, is a rebellious sort of character whose sketchy relationship with her own mum has led her to veer off the rails. Her conception of masculinity is somewhat typical of the ‘old kind’: she considers power to be the most important factor, above new-fangled ideas of sensitivity or sensuality. Abbie, on the other hand, is a hardcore feminist and lays Jamie out with a reading list of related literature (such as Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian). Her outlook on the world is more progressive – perhaps too progressive in relation to the other characters, and with a serious emphasis on sexuality. That Jamie know how to give a woman an orgasm is held as crucial to her plan of action.
Beyond their didactic position according to Dorothea, the characters of Julie and Abbie help shape the frustrated Jamie (yes, a cliché, but we were all a little clichéd at that age) in other ways. With Julie the under-the-surface romantic subplot develops quite subtly, with a sort of balancing act going on – Julie wants things to stay platonic, Jamie doesn’t, and how they work that out is key to Jamie’s development. With Abbie he gets to experience a cultural shock, going out and seeing the world through the eyes of an artist. He also hears the world, and the audience gets in on that too. The soundtrack of 20th Century Women is nonpareil – the likes of Devo, Suicide, Neu!, Bowie, The Clash, The Raincoats, Black Flag, and the matchless Talking Heads all feature, both diegetically and otherwise. Mike Mills is presumably replaying the playlist of his past, and we’re just lucky he had such great taste. Even beyond its quality, the music gives a real sense of time and context. This also ties in a little to the events on-screen, for example in narrative reference to the conflict between the hardcore and ‘artfag’ music scenes, which was a pretty big deal in ’79.
Unfortunately the visual in the film never quite reaches the level of the aural, with a style that, though original, is a little inconsistent. One of the more noticeable effects deployed is the use of fast motion to emphasise events on screen. More often than not this looks rather unattractive, and detracts from otherwise good cinematography. There are a few scenes that capture high-speed driving in fast motion with a chromatic aberration filter which work quite well, but these are the exception. One scene uses a clip from the 1982 masterwork Koyaanisqatsi, a film famous for its excellent use of fast motion, but the close comparison only makes 20th Century Women’s weakness in that area more obvious. This quoting of various important films and books from the period in question is another interesting stylistic choice in the film. The quotes are often put on screen accompanied by a citation, and manage to give the film an interesting level of historicity, a feeling of authenticity. This is matched by the use of autobiographical voiceovers from characters at certain points in the film; despite being fictional these create the impression that these people are genuine and have a reality beyond the film’s constraints. One less effective attempt to historicise the film is through use of stock photos of various bands and so on, which generally hurt the rhythm of the film – how better to deflate a high octane gig scene than to cut to old stills of the bands onstage?
However, in regard to the film as a whole these small deficiencies don’t pull it down mach. Its main success are in its characters, acting, and script. Dorothea, for example, is in an interesting position in the narrative. She’s a ‘cool mom’ and can be quite lax, writing fake notes for Jamie to take days off school, but she’s not a full-on progressive either, finding Abbie a little too zealous in her feminism. Though she lives in the 70s, it’s not forgotten that Dorothea was born in the Depression, especially in her musical taste (including the likes of Louis Armstrong) and fashion sense. Like the ‘problem’ of Jamie’s masculinity as he approaches adulthood, Dorothea finds herself at a crossroads, and facing and issue brought up by some quoted feminist literature: that in middle age women are seen to lose value in society. Mills’ film is not just about Jamie, an approximate of himself, growing up in 1979, but about Dorothea growing old in the same time. Annette Bening manages to find a great medium between strength and uncertainty in the character, and also nails the motherly mannerisms throughout, likely from experience. Greta Gerwig is also notable for her performance as Abbie, who manages to strike a fine balance between a character sure in her convictions and one shaken by her particular circumstances.
20th Century Women works beyond even these details due to its atmosphere, its optimism, and its excellent pace. The underlying narrative here isn’t particularly strong and serves as a frame on which anecdotes and slices of life can be put upon – a stream of the past, as it were. Despite some questionable stylistic choices, it is an immersive piece about being a man, being a woman, growing up, and freedom in the world. It manages drama, comedy, and some pretty emotional hits here and there without ever feeling fractured or contrived, and so achieves exactly what it set out to do. A firmly enjoyable and sometimes insightful film, it makes for a fine two-hour holiday.
20th Century Women is out in UK cinemas on February 10. See the trailer below: