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Film Review: 20th Century Women

It’s 1979 and the world seems to be at a precipice; Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran Hostage Crisis are behind us and we are at a moment before the counterrevolution. With 20th Century Women, filmmaker, Mike Mills created a film that explores the cultural rifts of late 70s suburbia, punk subculture, and the eruption of contemporary femininity.

Dorothea is the heroine of 20th Century Women, the Birkenstock wearing, Salem cigarette smoking, matriarch of the non-traditional house she runs. Her central focus revolves around her son, Jamie, who at 15 is feeling suffocated by her piercing concern for him. She had him at 40 and has raised him on her own ever since. A couple of tenants rent out rooms in her enormous, crumbling house: Abbie, the ‘Bowie-head’ photographer recovering from cervical cancer, and William, an aimless DIY mechanic / ceramicist who still says things like “earth mother,” and “energy,” and of course there is Julie, Jamie’s best friend with whom he is ever so in love with. Unhappy wither own family and home, Julie crawls through Jamie’s window at night to sleep (platonically, much to his agony) with him on his mattress on the floor. Dorothea, feeling that she knows Jamie less and less each day, is worried that she might not be enough for him. So she enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to guide him as he enters the next phase of his life. Initially, Abbie and Julie are bewildered by this request but warm up to it. Abbie takes Jamie out to punk music clubs, introduces him to the Talking Heads and The Raincoats, and (much to Dorothea’s apprehension) gives him hardcore feminist literature to read. Dorothea eventually steps in after Jamie gets his ass handed to him by guys from school over discussion of “clitoral stimulation.” Abbie and Julie had been introducing a form of feminism and desire for raw emotion that vibrates Dorothea in a way she was not ready for.

20th Century Women, Mike Mills’ third feature, pays tribute to his real mother and his relationship with her growing up but it’s also a loving tribute to women in general. Eccentric, complicated women surround Jamie. Their bodies are confusing and erratic: from Abbie’s battle with her cervix, Julie’s pregnancy scare, to Dorothea’s slow acceptance of her mortality. Jamie wants to understand and desperately wants to be there for them. He tells his mother, “I want to be a good guy, you know?” After all, isn’t that what Dorothea wanted for him to begin with? Mills also replicates a quality of nostalgia in a way that we’ve never quite seen before. Through archival footage and juxtaposed images, Mills captures the way we think about people we knew and the lives they lived when remembered decades later. His mixed media approach (an amalgamation of his experience in graphic design and fine art) allows him to eloquently express the connective links between the present and the past.

20th Century Women is a splendid tribute to a parent, to women, to love and adolescence. It is filled with a rush of gorgeous moments, thoughtfully made observations and vignettes on femininity. I don’t know why Dorothea seemed so worried about Jamie; his perceptiveness to the women around him and genuine curiosity of their experience is hopeful. Mills framed the film around a young man but, if anything, 20th Century Women shows us portraits of real women in a moment in time–how they lived, what they fought about, what music they listened to, what they cared about and what they hoped for.

Watch the trailer below:

Film review by Ida Yazdi. Find her online at @idaym.

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