Much like Beginners, 20th Century Women is another deeply personal work from the mind of Mike Mills, serving as poetic admiration and appreciation of women, especially mothers and just how incredible they are. Seriously, think back at everything your mom has done for you, isn’t that just insane? On that thinking back note, that’s essentially what Mills does here, remembering that Sunny seventies’ Californian Summer that formed him.
With 20th Century Women, Mills recounts the tale of how he was raised by a matriarchy, opposing the common ideals of the bizarre society the 70’s proposed. Clamoring for change and essentially letting itself recline on what the 60’s did while slowly getting dragged forward by the 80’s, the 70’s is an odd decade full of controversy, pseudo-evolution, and an ultimate crisis of confidence among the American people. In a way, we’re re-living a form a sense of the 70’s as we revive the concepts I just listed. Gerwig’s Abbie says the following in 20th Century Women, “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that,” well the same could be said about society, we all think it’s directed somewhere progressive but with everything that’s going on as of late, I have no idea where we’re headed. Consequently, having no real direction or communal sense of striving towards greatness means that those who are molded by this very illogical society will be in a sense raised by a nonsensical community with no purpose.
Without a sense of purpose, we ‘re just vagrants roaming Earth. The lack of purpose also gives in to a lack of care or an exaltation of freedom which leads to recklessness. As we all know, those teenage years are where everything you know comes together and you struggle to either accept, reject, or adapt to it. In 20th Century Women, Mike Mills depicts a younger version of himself acting as a sponge taking in all these wild experiences and feelings produced by the times he’s living in and most importantly the women who are raising him.
These three women are his mother, obviously, his best-friend/crush, and a photographer recovering from cervical cancer that rents a room in the house his mother runs. Annette Bening does a fantastic job in portraying this stand-offish yet intensely caring mother, one that knows she’ll never understand her child but stills tries to do so with all her might. Elle Fanning delivers a rather nuanced portrayal that settles the line between friendship and partnership, meanwhile Greta Gerwig delivers her best work to date. Maybe I’m kind of biased based on my great adoration of Gerwig, but despite delivering countless great performances in her recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, Gerwig delivers with a stellar performance that encompasses an extreme range of feelings and emotions ranging from sadness, understanding, humor, empowerment, confidence, anger, and cleverness. She truly sinks into the skin of Abbie, delivering a top-notch performance for the ages.
Back to Jamie serving as a sponge, the way Mills’s infuses feminism with punk and the concept of sex and the love of the time creates this wonderfully complex character coming into fruition. The hazy colors that trail the cars in this film speak to Jamie and the time period, expressing the communal confused emotion of people at the time. No one really knew who they were or who they wanted to be, they just took volatile stances in regards to something that kind of expressed who you were thought of as. No one seemed real and everyone was but a byproduct of the things that defined him, hence emphasizing the meaning of Jamie’s quest for self-identity. His decision to listen to both Black Flag and The Talking Heads meant he was advancing beyond the simple minds that demarcated themselves by listening to one or the other.
20th Century Women, is an extremely interesting film about how we come to be who we are and if we’re not just that person based on external forces. Are you really who you are or are you only like that in response to factors that define you that way? 20th Century Women is a story about the journey to self-expression that ignores the final destination, it’s about how we come to be, not about who we are. Ultimately, the journey is a thousand times more interesting than the destination and the journey Mills lets in on is an incredible constructed one. It’s an interaction between the 70’s and matriarchal concepts blowing up in a kid’s mind, a kid who would one day grow up nurtured by this explosion and craft a beautiful film about how it happened, dedicating it to his mother who with the help of a couple of 20th century women guided him towards this end.