20th Century Women (2016)
Words by Danni Turner

20th Century Women (2016)

Written and directed by Mike Mills, and starring Screen Queens, Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning, this indie flick about womanhood is guaranteed to steal your heart, if not occupy your mind with its feminist wisdom and noteworthy life lessons.

20th Century Women has everything a great film needs: a compassionate director, a smashing soundtrack (Talking Heads, The Raincoats, Siouxsie and the Banshees), and Annette Bening.

Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, it is a sensitive portrait of three women, from three different generations: cool but troubled teenager, Julie (Elle Fanning), 20-something radical feminist and artist, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and fiercely independent, Dorothea (Bening) who — as her teenage son, Jamie, so often reminds us — was born during the Depression, and as such has a “unique” approach to parenting. With Jamie’s dad out of the picture and tenant William, failing to step up as his replacement, Dorothea turns to Julie and Abbie for help in raising her son. “Don’t you need a man, to raise a man?” Julie asks in one scene, “No, I don’t think so,” Dorothea replies, and the film sets out to prove her right.

Written as a tribute to the women who helped shape director Mike Mills, the female characters in 20th Century Women possess a unique authenticity; rooted in reality, they offer respite from the one-dimensional female figures Hollywood churns out, for a more accurate depiction of women as multifaceted and messy.

Through the film’s episodic structure, Mills’ women’s backstories are divulged, and the intricacies of their inner lives are explored. Beginning with Dorothea, we learn that she had dreams to become a pilot, was the “first woman to work in the Continental Can Company drafting room,” married, divorced, and seemingly dedicated the rest of her life to becoming the coolest mum on earth. Case in point, several scenes from the past see Dorothea defending young Jamie’s right to a bank account, and arguing with his headteacher, “Wait a minute, why can’t he skip school?”

In conversation with Indie Wire, Mills outlines the difficulty he had writing this close-to-home character, saying, “With a real person, you can never capture them;” this is surely true, but considering Mills’ description of his mother (Dorothea’s inspiration) as a “Depression-era, World War II, Humphrey Bogart person” — I must say, he does a pretty damn-good job.

As for Julie, Mills tells The Cut that she doesn’t represent any one woman in his life, but several girlfriends that came and went: “They were often very pretty and very objectified and sometimes played a performance of being simpler than they were — for power.” This is an apt description of self-aware Julie who reads Judy Blume’s, Forever, and fancies herself an expert in relationships: “People say they’re falling in love, but they’re not actually falling in love. It’s a fake connection.” A cynic for good reason, boys haven’t been the best to Julie. Like the objectified girls Mills speaks of, she is used by a casual fling who, during sex, “forgets” to pull out and leaves her to deal with the consequences. Fortunately, Jamie and Abbie are on hand to right this wrong. In an effort to demonstrate the importance of reproductive health care, we see Jamie buy his friend an archaic-looking home pregnancy test (negative), then — in a particularly wholesome scene — surrogate sister, Abbie, takes Julie to Planned Parenthood to go on the pill.

Spunky, red-haired, Abbie, oozes cool. A second-wave feminist and photographer, she’s an active member of the punk scene and once lived in New York (city of dreams). So close to slipping into quirky, “not like other girls” territory, Mills pulls her back by using his real-life sister’s experiences to build her character, and having Abbie go through several dire, universally relatable, ordeals which have her appear more “human,” and less “manic pixie dream girl” (even if she does have an impressive influence on men). 

When Abbie is not teaching people to say “menstruation” with confidence, she is doing God’s work of mentoring Jamie in how to satisfy, and be an ally to, women. Responsible for the quote, “I gave him beer, and then I taught him how to verbally seduce women,” she is also, no doubt, responsible for the debacle that led to this iconic interaction: [Dorothea] “So, what was the fight about?” [Jamie] “Clitoral stimulation”... Go figure.