20th Century Women

Madeleine Copley | 30/05/2017

The title being something of a giveaway, 20th Century Women is unsurprisingly a film about the lives of twentieth century women. More difficult to discern from the title is writer/director Mike Mills’ astonishing ability to make a film so nostalgic feel so relevant.

Having made a film for his father for his father (Beginners, starring Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent), Mike Mills’ most recent film is, he says, for his mother. Described as a “memory” film, 20th Century Women tells the stories of three women from the perspective of Jamie, the semi-autobiographical protagonist played by Lucas Jade Zumann, who lives in a Santa Barbara boarding house with the three titular characters.  For a premise which could all too easily verge upon the cliché, the deliberately and unapologetically eccentric female characters do not fail to feel believably authentic (thanks in no small part to the detail which has clearly gone into developing them).


Annette Benning gives an irrepressibly winning performance as Jamie’s mother (frequently described by her son as being “from the Depression”), a chain-smoking divorcee who smokes Salem cigarettes because they are ‘healthier’. She enlists the assistance of her tenant, Abbie (the eternally wonderful Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best-friend and not-so-secret love interest, Julie (Elle Fanning), in “raising” her son.  Whilst some of the ‘women’s issues’ the film’s wandering narrative explores do at times feel a little contrived, and while some brushes past moments which could have benefited from more sober treatment occur, it's optimistically whimsical style is largely effective.


For a story which so obviously has women and women’s stories as its focus, 20th Century Women seems to say just as much about the nature of the Twentieth Century Man (whether consciously or not). Early on in the film, Dorothea extols her worries about the difficulties Jamie will face in becoming a man in the modern world.  Watching the way in which each of the women seeks to mould Jamie into her own model of masculinity (we see Abbie strive to awaken in Jamie a feminist sensibility, Julie often denies his agency whilst he insists that he just wants “to be a good guy”) lends an interesting perspective and depth to the narrative.


As in Mills’ previous work, there are elements of artifice and constructed whimsy which detract somewhat from the film’s effectiveness. However, one of Mills’ great strengths is his skillfully effective intertextuality. 20th Century Women integrates a soundtrack which is such an authentic orchestration of the late 1970s (Talking Heads, The Rain Coats and Siouxsie and the Banshees) with gobbets of contemporary radical feminist discourse, the real politik of 1970s America and elements of popular culture to anchor his work so firmly in the America of Jimmy Carter, détente and Black Flag without detriment to the relevance of the themes and issues he explores.


An intertextual piece with a uniquely feminine perspective, 20th Century Women is a showcase of spectacular filmmaking and performance, that drives a solid character piece and only fumbles when whimsical artifice get in the way of effective nostalgia.