Photo of 20th Century Women cast
I arrived at the movie theater and waited in the cold for about 30 minutes. I didn’t really have a purpose or a motivation, and the sacrifice of warmth and time didn’t seem worthwhile at the time. But I stood as my local art house theater tried to fill every seat of its 225 capacity with people in line. They kept counting off groups of 40, 30, 20, to let in, each time telling us there would probably be no more room. Some people ahead of me left. Finally, they told us there were five seats left. I was lucky enough to be the fifth, the last person admitted entry to Mike Mills’ latest film, 20th Century Women.
Thus was the craze surrounding this early screening of the film, and I felt a little bit guilty for winning the last seat when I had never heard of Mills or his films before I read about the screening the day before. I had seen the trailer for 20th Century Women, but had confused it for another movie I had recently seen called, Certain Women.
So I walked in with a completely blank slate, no pre-conceived notions of the director, the film, or even most of the actors—I had never seen any of the cast’s previous films, with the exception of Billy Crudup from Spotlight and Almost Famous.
What followed was a bittersweet reflection on teenagehood from all the perspectives intertwined in it: the teenager themselves, the parent(s) and the friends. 20th Century Women doesn’t sugar coat anything or pretend to understand the answer to coming of age. It lives and lets live, the good and the bad.
It’s the story of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a teenage boy whose estranged father has left him without a male role model. But it’s also the story of Dorothea (Annette Bening), Jamie’s strong and sarcastic mother and her relationship with her son. The film doesn’t really show the characters’ development; it’s more about their relationships’ development, and following decomposition, and then more development. The growth ebbs and flows, as all growth in relationships do.
The film poses the question whether or not boys need to be raised by men—it seems to say no. Feeling inadequate in her job as a parent, Dorothea enlists one of the boarders in her house, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk photographer recovering from cervical cancer and dealing with her own loss, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s friend and romantic interest. She asks that Abbie and Julie help to raise Jamie, as they have relationships with him that allow for a different kind of connection than mother and son.
The film flows as a series of vignettes, the characters’ moments of learning and growing with each other. Each of them has their own journey, large or small, that they make throughout the film. It’s funny, but it hurts too—you’re watching lives go by, lives that you know don’t end up perfectly thanks to voiceovers from the characters describing their own fates before we see them happen.
The actors’ timing and delivery, Annette Bening’s in particular, produce hilarious one-liners and moments of laugh-out-loud humor. It was one of the first times I’d really laughed at a movie for a while. The soundtrack, mostly the punk-rock and alt-punk of the era, flows through the film like a character itself. (Talking Heads fans will appreciate how their music appears twice, and is oft-discussed by characters.) The incorporation of late 70s pop culture throughout the film (photos and videos of political occurrences, musicians, actors) seems to follow the nostalgia trend we’ve seen recently.
20th Century Women is okay with the fact that life doesn’t always have happy or even sad endings. Sometimes it just continues. As Jamie’s favorite band, Talking Heads, once said, “Things fall apart—it’s scientific!” The film takes less of a scientific and more of an empathetic approach to illustrating that theory. But things fall together, too. 20th Century Women respects the audience enough to be honest with us about how things are, and for that, seeing this movie should be one of your priorities.