Is a person—or, for that matter, a film—more than the sum of their influences? Writer-director Mike Mills’s autobiographical coming-of-age tale 20th Century Women hinges on that question, while dominated by Annette Bening’s leading turn as Dorothea Fields—a chain-smoking feminist who had her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), at the age of 40 and decided to raise him alone after his father abandoned them. Mills’s screenplay takes place in Santa Barbara, California, centering on the summer of 1979, when Jamie is 15 and beginning to bask in the freeing energy of punk music, all the while grappling with the pitfalls of romantic infatuation. Dorothea is the kind of woman who nods empathetically while shaking her head at the same time, deftly portrayed by Bening as both proud and apprehensive, the self-image of her motherhood stuck between past and present tenses.
This is another disjunction that informs the film through its nearly two-hour runtime: We may not be able to understand our family relationships in the present, but can look back years later and begin to fathom the interpersonal dynamics at play. When Dorothea asks her two de facto daughters, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to help her raise Jamie to be the best man he can be, it’s a fundamentally compassionate hook for a film—and the resultant disorder between generations invites a clever riposte to historical dramas like Mad Men or Inside Llewyn Davis, where every last cigarette pull seems orchestrated to flatter the viewer’s notion of historical progress.
Dorothea is a surrogate mother to Abbie, a budding photographer who hasn’t gotten over the years she spent within New York’s punk scene, and Julie, a teen who becomes the fixation of Jamie’s young life. While repeat mentions are made of Dorothea growing up during the Great Depression, the crises of capital have given way to the (very Californian) postwar crisis of the self: Abbie spends her 20s struggling with cancer because her mother had taken a fertility drug later found to be toxic, while Julie rebels against her therapist mom by getting into drugs and sex at a preternatural age. She also adopts her mother’s psychologist nomenclatures, in an ostensible attempt to make sense of everyone else around her—a character wrinkle given real levity by way of Fanning’s self-serious vulnerability. As if the distance between her insecurity and everybody else’s were incalculable, she tells Jamie: “Guys aren’t supposed to look like they’re thinking about what they look like.”
The screenplay refracts Jamie’s coming-of-age trajectory among the members of his makeshift family, which also includes William (Billy Crudup), a former hippie who helps out around Dorothea’s house, which is in a state of permanent rehabilitation. The narrative breaks to follow one character for minutes at a time, or to cushion their individual backstory with archival photographs that suggest far bigger swaths of off-screen history. There’s an abiding sense that the big and small epiphanies of this family’s life aren’t limited to what appears in the film; each character could accord their own narrative runtime, and Mills would appear to know it.
But the privileging of auteurist omniscience feels at once novelistic and unavoidably Internet-era. The camera is used like a widescreen microscope, pausing to catalogue key specimens of each housemate’s personality: Dorothea’s packs of cigarettes, Abbie’s books, photos that explain how William’s heart was broken at a hippie commune. For viewers, much depends on whether the arguable twee nostalgia and just-so annotation that were signal bearers of Wes Anderson’s heyday have become aesthetic clichés in their own right. Mills’s scramble to measure every last vestige of influence on Jamie’s life, one needle-drop at a time, sometimes puts the story at odds with its sense of emotional place. The script handily succeeds in establishing these people as more than mannequins in the window display of Jamie’s memory, but one still suspects that there’s a more conventionally structured melodrama somewhere in here held hostage by Mills’s record collection.
In this bric-a-brac of side tangents, music cues, and belabored cultural touchstones, the question of redundancy will become, for audiences, something of a Rorschach test. In one repeating trope, scenes set in Abbie’s punk club of choice are shot with time-lapse photography, making these moments of liberation self-consciously unaware of the Proustian status they’ll hold in the older Jamie’s mind. Since Godfrey Reggio’s time-lapse-intensive Koyaanisqatsi is another cultural artifact sampled by Mills, the post-production effect also manages to suggest punk as a logical extension of late postwar capitalism. One shot of Jamie watching the family TV set as President Jimmy Carter delivers his seminal “Crisis of Confidence” speech is presumably suggestive enough in its own right, so why include a supertitle that annotates the speech as “The ’Crisis of Confidence’ Speech”?
It speaks to 20th Century Women’s emotional sprawl that it effectively contains two musical scores with their own returning leitmotifs, one pop-diegetic (including Bowie, Black Flag, Raincoats), the other provided by Roger Neil—a gushy main theme that seems to resurface at least a dozen times throughout the film, ambient music of the yoga-clinic waiting-room variety that teases at the bigness and wonderment of everyday life.
Dorothea’s ongoing concern is about Jamie growing up too fast; eventually, it shifts into disdain for Abbie’s second-wave feminism, leaving her son to choose a paradigm for himself at the dinner table. One late scene sees Abbie forcing all the men at one of Dorothea’s parties to get used to saying the word “menstruation,” against their own discomfort (to say nothing of the host’s mortification); like the film’s best moments, it’s bruisingly hilarious, staged with a cringe-making anxiety that will infect all but the most blasé viewers.
20th Century Women incurs sorrow at the prospect of saying goodbye to its characters, despite having elaborated (and sometimes painstakingly so) how and why their lives might not be so different from those in the audience. Mills’s screenplay is estimable in its wisdom: The filmmaker doesn’t depict his former teenage self as a neurotic victim of outsized personality-sculpting, but rather as blessed witness to a handful of extraordinary women—and the film does its work in making their personalities sparkle.