“20th Century Women” Depicts the Complexities of Womanhood


“20th Century Women” stars Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Ellie Fanning , Lucas Jade Zumann and Billy Crudup, pictured above. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Erica Scalise, Projects Editor

At nighttime, when I’m finally cocooned between covers, laying beside a box of half-eaten biscotti and a book I will have inevitably promised and then failed to read (hello “A People’s History of the United States”), my mind wanders to the possibility of a movie. It’s almost never at a reasonable hour and likely abandoned somewhere around the 20-minute mark for a fruitless attempt at some adequate shut-eye.

On occasion, a film dazzles apart from the rest, though, so much so that it’s worth the subsequent morning’s tired headache and inevitable midday crash on the FMH bathroom couch.

When I turned on Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” after midnight on a Wednesday in early October, I must admit, I hardly knew what I was getting myself into.

The film is set in Santa Barbara in 1979 at the turn of a decade marked largely by sexual liberation, political uncertainty and the divisive punk scene.

It revolves around three twentieth-century women — Dorothea (Annette Bening), Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) — narrated from the point of view of Dorthea’s fifteen-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) who starkly resembles Timothée Chalamet.

The story tracks Jamie’s emergence into adolescence while simultaneously interweaving each of the three women’s stories into a cohesive collection of archived vignettes and emotional insights into the inner workings of the female mind.

The all-encompassing counter culture on the cusp of something strange and new is unfamiliar to Dorthea, a single mother who, upon feeling out of touch in her mid-50s, solicits the help of two young women (Gerwig and Fanning) to help raise her son.

“Do you need a man to raise a man?” Dorthea questions to which she reluctantly declares, “I don’t think so.”

Mills, a graphic designer and music video creator first, for acts like Sonic Youth and Air, creates a snapshot in time of the passing of time itself in a story that feels just as much like an homage to mothers as it does a love letter to the time period’s art and media.

The film seamlessly interweaves a conglomerate of words and sounds from music from the female, British punk band, The Raincoats, to quotes strewn straight from feminist author Susan Lydon’s “The Politics of Orgasm” and excerpts from Jimmy Carter’s all too relevant “Crisis of Confidence” speech.

One of the film’s most poignant moments comes out of a scene in which Jamie, upon garnering newfound knowledge about feminism, reads an essay to his mother entitled, “It Hurts to be Alive and Obsolete: The Aging Woman” in an attempt to convey an understanding of her that’s inevitably offensive.

“I don’t need a book to tell me who I am,” Dorthea declares, dampened.

Mills also plays with vintage photographs and archived footage to expand the narrative of each woman’s life and in doing so, their stories emerge, more vibrant and honest, providing a realistically unadulterated slice of life into the complexities of womanhood.

Weeks following my original viewing alone in my bedroom, my mother and I watched “20th Century Women” during a quick weekend trip she took to New York.

The film is, if anything, an insightful reminder into a forgotten truth; people live entire lives before they have children and women live entire lives before they have children because women are people.

Disjointed at times and tastefully slow, the film flips conventional structure completely on its head, exchanging it for something so clever and unintentionally unique that I’m only left wishing I had both written it myself or could sleep in Mills’ brain, even if for just a snapshot in time.