'20th Century Women' Holds Particular Relevance for 21st Century Women

Annette Bening in 20th Century Women (2016)

As much as it considers the past, 20th Century Women's profound confidence in women's strength and ingenuity proposes a way to look forward.

20th Century Women

Rated: R
Director: Mike Mils
Cast: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup
Studio: A24
UK: date: 2017-01-01 (General release)
Year: 2016
US date: 2017-01-20 (General release)

20th Century Women begins with a car on fire. "That was my husband's Ford Galaxy," says Dorothea (Annette Bening), while you watch it burn. A few moments later, she appears on screen in a long shot, making her way across a supermarket parking lot. "We drove Jamie home from the hospital in that car," she tells you. And with that, she invites the fire department chief, so helpful, to her home for dinner.

It's 1979 in Santa Barbara, as you've seen in an opening title. You'll soon know that Dorothea is a single mom and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is now 15, and that they have different views of the world they inhabit, a world that's changing. As the '70s give way to the '80s, the differences are partly generational, partly gendered, partly personal, as Mike Mills' film recalls his childhood, and specifically, his relationship with his mother. That it begins with a fire is at once sensational and appropriate, as the image captures the very essence of change, a transition from one era to another, from one story to others, from one set of hopes and expectations to what seems a whole new unknown.

20th Century Women explores that unknown as it fictionalizes Mills' memories, refracting them through the "women" whose own stories he can, of course, only guess at. Jamie's father left years ago, and in his absence, Dorothea searches for ways to "raise" her boy to be a "good man". She enlists the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), even as they express doubts about the enterprise. In the kitchen, sink and cabinets behind them, the three women pause and look at one another: "Don't you need a man to raise a man?" Julie asks. "I don't think so," says Dorothea. The scene cuts to Jamie on a skateboard, the mobile frame trailing after him, then revealing Dorothea in her car, driving behind hm.

In presenting Dorothea's efforts, the film grants her lots of space and also, silence, leaving Bening's magical face to convey more than any dialogue or expository music might. Each of the women brings her version of this expressive gift, and each is granted sections, with her story and voice-over, her predicaments. Their narrative intersections and visual overlaps create connections and fragments, and allusions to the world beyond Santa Barbara, visible in the art and music they embrace and on TV. When, in summer, the motley family unit sits before the television to watch Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, the camera passes over their faces, studies in confusion, fascination, and horror. As the frame pauses on Dorothea, she nods, her eyes bright with recognition of "the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation".

Her understanding is yours, for you know the crises to come, and likely hear in Carter's words echoes of what's happening today. 20th Century Women goes on to gesture toward this future, sometimes in bits of Dorothea's history to come, including her death due to cancer (she chain-smokes here), folded into Jamie's observations. His relationship with his best friend Julie (she lives down the street) is difficult, and not a little Dawson-like. When she climbs in through his window, so they can lie on his bed and talk through the night, he's inclined to explore, despite and maybe because of her self-assured declaration, "Friends can't have sex and still be friends."

Suitably daunted, Jamie is at least partly diverted by Abbie, a photographer who rents a room in Dorothea's house, which is, significantly, under renovation throughout the film, work done by the affable handyman William (Billy Crudup). Abbie's dyed-red hair and passion for Black Flag and the Germs makes her an ideal object of enchantment; when she lends Jamie her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, he's both thrilled and transfixed, seeing what he hasn't seen before.

The stories here are limited, particularly white and particularly middle-classed. The women here pursue other possibilities, with self-awareness being a first step. Julie instructs Jamie based on her narrow experience ("Guys aren't supposed to look like they're thinking about what they look like,” she says, walking with a boy's conceit to demonstrate. Abbie, a child of the '70s growing into the '80s, initiates another sort of educational project, deciding to "take a picture of everything that happens in a day," a project about limits. As intimate, stark, and lovely as these images of clothing and plates and instruments in her doctor's office might appear to us in a brief montage, Dorothea resists: "I don’t like having my picture taken," she notes, "I didn’t happen to you."

But Dorothea does happen -- to everyone around her, to the film, and to you. Alternately fretful and joyous, original and trendy (working in her garden, she advises, "Put your hands in the dirt and feel the earth mother"), she's emerged from her past. "She's from the Depression," observes Jamie, that planet of time that might explain her worries and her courage, her distrust of the future and habit of writing down her stocks from out of the newspaper every morning. As Dorothea is an inspired nonconformist, she's also full of utterly reasonable contradictions, a mom who loves her son, determined to let her child loose, but also wanting to know what he does when she can't see him.

As her consternation gives way to at least a tentative trust and her family evolves around her, Dorothea's swirling mix of worry and resilience forms the film's center. It also makes 20th Century Women, a movie detailing history, an oddly perfect movie for the present. A new "official featurette" released by distributor A24 in conjunction with Planned Parenthood, underscores the risks ahead for women in the 21st century. It also celebrates the movie's profound confidence in women's strength and ingenuity, a way to look forward, even now.

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