“20th Century Women” Movie Review

Breathtaking Film by Mike Mills Is Both Heartfelt and Crushing at the Same Time


Abby Tow, Staff Writer

“Grief and memory go together. After someone dies, that’s what you’re left with. And the memories are so slippery yet so rich,” says Mike Mills, director and writer of 20th Century Women.

The film is a companion piece to his previous film, Beginners, which is a loose account of his father’s life. His most recent film, however, details his mother, and the other women that affected his upbringing in Santa Barbara, 1979. In the film, which is also based on his own life, an adolescent boy’s single, older mother enlists two other women to be in her son’s life when she suddenly becomes concerned that in the rapidly changing times, her son must learn to be a good man. And what better way to do this, she thinks, than to use the only influential people in his life to teach him this: his edgy and rebellious female friend, and a punk-loving artist and photographer that rents a room in their house? The women are all based on women in Mills’ early life, and they are all disturbingly real. Mills grieves his real mother’s passing with every nuance of the character’s movements, and we feel the reality of his sorrow along with every happy moment and triumphant success. You cannot watch this film without being changed forever. 

Where does one start to describe a film like this? It opens with a car on fire in a grocery store parking lot: the death of the past, the death of comfort, and the death of stability. The times for this film are changing at the turn of a decade. When I experienced it for the first time, I was immediately struck by the characters. The film is about a boy named Jamie, but he is only a vessel to show us the stories of other women. Annette Bening’s character, Dorothea, plays a mother, but she is so much more than that. Mills writes her based on his own mother, a woman who grew up during the Great Depression, who picked up smoking because it was cool, who worked to be a fighter pilot but couldn’t because the war ended before she could, who listens to jazz, who has no husband and has no earthly clue how to raise his son to be a good man in the times she is so far removed from. She tells her son’s friend, “You see him out in the world. I never will.” Dorothea is blunt and a realist. She writes down her stocks every morning, and she rents out rooms in her massive home to tenants who she cares for like family. One of these women, Abbie, rents a room in the house, and she also plays a prominent role in the story.

Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, is a photographer recovering from cancer and obsessed with the punk scene. She is more than her trauma, but she is broken, and we feel her hurt. Her hair is short and red; her eyeliner is black. She is the quintessential lost woman who has found solace in the inviting motherhood of strangers. She introduces Jamie to music, punk, like the Talking Heads, and she takes him out to Los Angeles to see the real world. “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not going be anything like that,” she tells him. She gives him all of the textbooks from her Women’s Studies college courses, and he reads every single one. The final woman, who is a reflection of Mills’ childhood friends, is the daughter of a therapist but is, ironically, very emotionally awry and has no clue how to deal with adolescence. Her name is Julie, and she is very, very platonically in love with Jamie. She sneaks into his room through the windows every night to relay her adult adventures to him; he is the home she does not experience in her life. She teaches him how to hold a cigarette, how to walk like a tough man, and how to not feel anything, like, she says, a man should. All of these women combine to create a multi-generational curriculum on manhood for the teenage boy.

Beyond the characters, the film is beautiful. The cinematography is strikingly gorgeous, and Mills refuses to shy away from a mixture of stills, clips, and action shots. His utilized props from his real life in the film, such as his mother’s bracelet and quilt, and the sets, from the home to the punk club to the skate park, are all masterfully crafted. All of this in addition to the artful soundtrack- a combination of jazz, punk, and stunning original compositions for the film by Roger Neill make us nostalgic for a time and place we did not exist in.

The film touches the parts of us that feel disconnected from the world, the fads we cannot interpret, those who are older than us and those who are younger, those who come from war and those who come from peace, those who come from disco and those who come from punk, those who come from diners and drive-in movies and those who come from skate parks. This movie is artwork at its finest. If you haven’t seen it I’d highly recommend it. You’ve never seen a film like it before, and you likely never will again.