20th Century Women
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Starring: Anette Benning, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning
Is 20th Century Women Good?
The film is perhaps one of the most unique movies to get a mainstream release this year. Due to this, it is definitely not going to be to everybody's taste. However, it is still truly remarkable.
If you are going to put the film into any category it would probably be as a young boy’s coming of age story, however it blows apart any traditional notion of this. Family structures, friendships and relationship are all fuzzy and fluid and there aren’t particularly defined story arcs.
Instead were are left with a plethora of unique, complex female characters surrounding the boy, and the varied and subtle influence they all have on him during his early years.
With Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig tearing it up with some incredible performances, a beautiful soundtrack and some visually delightful cinematography that helps capture a nostalgic sense of the era, it is hard for you not to find something brilliant in the film.
"Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is"
"Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?"
What is on the 20th Century Women Soundtrack?
Composer Roger Neil has worked with Mike Mills many times over the years and they manage to pull out a killer soundtrack for 20th Century Women. Much of it features some of the punk greats of the late 70s, such as Buzzcocks, Germs and Suicide, while also including some of the best female rockers like The Raincoats and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Music plays a big part of the film, with Jamie coming into conflict as well as achieving some sense of self-discovery through music. This isn’t just an overdriven barrage of punk however. Much of the difficulty his mother, Dorothea, has with him, is feeling like she is disconnected and out of touch. She doesn’t understand what goes on in his mind, who he really is, or what he likes. The character of Abbie somewhat attempts to act as a bridge between the generations.
Roger Neil’s soundtrack ingeniously contrasts the punk with the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Sandy Williams. His original compositions of Santa Barbara, 1979, Modern People, All of My Objects, Everything on the Television and The Politics of Orgasm are the ethereal Brian Eno-esque bed that these divergences return to. These dreamy ambient synth tracks feel like the true tone of the film and are probably some of the best original film compositions of the year - so maybe check it out on Spotify, yeah?
Why is There so Much Dancing?
Well… because it's the 70s. Focussing on youth culture, it is hard to avoid music and drugs, especially in that era. Dancing is universal and nearly everyone in the film does it. Combined with the differing generations’ musical tastes, Dorothea, Abbie and Jamie all find dancing a freeing form of self-expression. The music and movement is an extension of who they are.
In one notable scene Dorothea and William listen to Jamie’s Black Flag record when he is not there. Dancing is their way of trying to understand and relate to the music that seems strange and foreign to them and subsequently the side of Jamie they never quite know. For Abbie, punk rock and dancing is an aggressive release of anger and frustration of both her life and an era, while as with many things in the movie, for Jamie it is a way to test the waters of his own personality.
Before ever shooting a single scene, director Mike Mills set up a dance party for the cast, where each had the opportunity to dance to the music of their character. For a director and a film so entangled in music and identity, it's unsurprising that the first place he asked the cast to seek for their characters is within their dancing.
What Books & Essays are in 20th Century Women?
Books form a core part of the plot of 20th Century Women. For Jamie they are an independent source of knowledge and ideas, helping him to discover his own thoughts and opinions on the world. Many of them are recommended to him by Abbie, the vocal feminist who lodges with his mother. Our Bodies, Our Selves by Judy Norsigian and The Politics of Orgasm from Sisterhood is Powerful help develop a remarkably deep understanding of sexuality in the young boy that feels comically yet admirably out of place, as he challenges his new found ideas with his peers and his elders.
It is within his quoting of an extract of It Hurts to be Alive and Obsolete: The Aging Woman by Zoe Moss that one of the film’s most beautiful moments is found. “I remain invisible. Don't pretend for a minute, as you look at me, that I am not as alive as you are and I do not suffer from the category to which you are forcing me.” In this extract Jamie manages to identify and empathise with a defining aspect of his mother’s identity. For Dorothea, it is a disarming moment where Jamie’s observation shifts their relationship and he begins to feel like more of a man than a boy. For Dorothea, it has vocalised an idea that she has never herself confronted and it is a surprise to come from her son. However the extract is a single woman’s perspective and Dorothea is afrontented, presumably for being pigeonholed as an ‘aging woman’.
Books are also read and mentioned by other characters, including Dorothea reading Watership Down by Richard Adams, and Julie reading Forever by Judy Blume and The Road Less Traveled by M Scott Peck. Each time a text is mentioned Mills seems to make it a reflection of the building blocks of that character, recognising the role of literature in forming personalities.
Why is There So Much Smoking in 20th Century Women?
It is hard to go a whole scene in 20th Century Women without a character lighting up a cigarette. Dorothea’s smoking is particularly prevalent as she often chainsmokes her way through scenes. Her character is given a frantic and unnerving sense of instability as the only thing she seems to be able to consistently cling hold of is her smoking habit. When questioned on this, she defends her actions by saying that when she started smoking, “it wasn’t bad for you”.
In Julie we see the generational contrast. She is of a generation that is more aware of the harmful effects, yet still languishes in smoking. In one scene she even attempts to show Jamie how to look cool while smoking, with very little sense of irony. For the older generation it is a constant reminder of their own mistakes, while for the younger generation it is an outright refusal to listen and learn from their elders and instead proceed doing exactly what they want without care of consequences.
Smoking also acts as a generational leveller and a bridge to connect them. As Dorothea and Julie confront each other in a conversation about Jamie in her car, it is the sharing of a cigarette that acts as the first moment of mutual understanding that the pair have.
"Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world"
What is with the Plot of 20th Century Women?
A common questions asked about 20th Century Women are about the plot, or at least the lack thereof it. It is true that the story of the film can simply be summed up as a boy, in 1970s Southern California, is raised by his mother and a range of her lodgers.
Throughout the film there are very few monumental incidents and none of the characters have particularly changed by the end of it. It is a coming of age story of sorts and the real focus is on the intricate characters and their relationships. Whereas many screenwriters would put in huge twists and dramatic sequences, Mills goes for a far more realistic portrayal, where in fact very little does happen.
That is not to say the film is by any means boring. Instead the small intricacies of life and relationships that shape who we are are magnified tenfold and result in a beautifully unique portrayal of boyhood.
How are Women Represented in 20th Century Women?
As the title might suggest, the representation of women in 20th Century Women is one of the most important aspects of the film. With little linear plot to talk about, it is within the women of the title that the main purpose of the film is found.
Mike Mills’ crafting of these character is delicate and intricate and although Dorothea, Julie and Abbie all are different ages and have different personalities, they are created with such care that it doesn’t ever feel like a bunch of stereotypes, instead just feeling incredibly real.
As a male writer & director it is easy to perhaps put Mills under more scrutiny for his creation of female characters. They easily stand up to it however. Most importantly, 20th Century Women is not purely about women but also Jamie, the central boy’s insightful perspective as he tries to understand the world and the people around him.