“It’s life’s illusions I recall…..I really don’t know life at all”.
This immortal line by Joni Mitchell sprung to mind when watching Mike Mills third film and first since 2011 Oscar winning “Beginners”. We spend half of our time thinking, dreaming, pondering, Trying to find an answer to it all. And the answer is ever-changing and unattainable. So we try and find meaning and truth in our lives and things that make sense to us. Relationships, family, music, books, sports. We finally think we are ahead and understand how life works and the rug is pulled out from under…every time. The characters in “20th Century Woman” all ponder what is real and what it means to be alive. To say Mills’s script is profound is to be disingenuous. It’s observations are remarkable.
“I just think having your heart broken is a tremendous way of learning about the world.”
“Wondering if you are happy is a quick shortcut to being depressed”.
These lines are not dispensed in cliche or are hamfisted. They emanate from a person who has seen her fair share of the world but still isn’t sure quite what she has seen and what she was meant to learn from it.
Dorothea (played to such resonance and reality by Annette Bening) is a woman who feels out of touch and lost with the direction the world is heading. Its 1979, Santa Barbara. She questions punk as to why “it can’t just sound pretty”. Her 13 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann who gives a subtle debut performance)is rushed to hospital after nearly dying playing a choking game with his friends and when she questions Jamie why he did it, he says “Everyone else was doing it. It looked like fun”. Dorothea finds her son slipping away and knows him less day by day, as every parent would when their children come of age. It is this relationship that is heart of the film due to the truth of it and the chemistry the two actors clearly possess.
“20th Century Women” is based heavily on Mill’s own teenage years, with Doretha and Abbie (Greta Gerwig in her best performance yet) being counterparts to Mill’s actual mother and sister. This makes the film more of a tender, heartfelt ode to family, specifically the woman who raise us. Its analysis of gender is one of the more powerful elements of the film and it begs the question that Doretha herself asks: what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Abbie and Julie (Elle Fanning who also shows new depths of her acting and solidifies her status as a bad-ass) attempt to teach Jamie this and both have very different techniques.
Abbie tries to teach Jamie how to truly appreciate women and to not conform to society’s expectations of what men should be even if society will not approve (Jamie is beaten up and called a fag after Abbie lectures him about the female orgasm, and Jamie innocently questions a friend lack of care for his female partner when it comes to sex, instead of just the expected banter and egging on.) While Julie attempts educate Jamie in terms of love and relationships which made problematic by the fact Jamie is in love with Julie something she is aware of ignores for the sake of their friendship.
It would be wrong to just put Julie into the category of “loose cannon” or a “cool girl”. She wants independence but also craves intimacy and values strength above all else in her partner. When asked by Jamie whether she regrets sleeping with some of her ex-partners, she replies yes. When asked why she then does it, she says simply “so I don’t regret it.”
Neither Julie nor Abbie conforms to the traditional female view and it could have been troublesome a male artist writing about the female experience with such certainty but it is done with thought and care. Whilst the scene in which Abbie encourages the whole of a dinner party to say “menstruation” is very funny, it is also a powerful exploration of how women are encouraged to keep quiet about their sexuality and things that are regarded as disgusting to men.
The film is not conventional to say the least. It shows us a moment in these character’s existence and places it against the wider context of their entire lives-past and future and what shaped them into the people we see now, and what will become of them and this is done to great effective by the characters narrating each other’s stories. It also examines the broader context of the world itself at this time.
1979, where the world had finally be liberated from the shackles of war and hate and is heading towards a beautiful bright uncertain future. Tomorrow comes today. Well at least that was what was supposed to happen. As Doretha warns “they don’t know Regan is coming…it’s impossible to imagine HIV….the internet……”. But for a moment, everyone was looking to the stars.
This might sound like a mind field to review this film and you would be right-it poses so many questions within myself that I don’t know the answers to. But it does not step a foot wrong. F*ck, even Roger Neill score is reflective and profound. Most of all though we care about these characters because we know them. Maybe they don’t look the same or sound or act the same. But we know their spirits. We recognise them in ourselves.And the search for meaning and truth continues.
The film concludes with an end sequence of the film that is likely to be one of the most powerful that I will see all year. Jamie discusses his future-that he will marry and have a son and states he will one day try to explain to his child about his mother…. “but it will be impossible”. As we hear these words, we see Doretha riding in a biplane. Laughing in simple awe of the world. Beautiful.