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‘20th Century Women’ and the Many Definitions of Self

Mike Mills’s latest film captures the gulf between how we imagine ourselves and how the rest of the world sees us


There is, blessedly, a scene in the new movie 20th Century Women where Annette Bening tries to dance to Black Flag. Specifically the A-side of the Nervous Breakdown EP, a gnarled mess of hardcore fury that surely confounded a lot of parents overhearing it through walls in 1979. Blame her tenant Abbie: The record — and a well-curated collections of others, like The Raincoats’ self-titled and Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food — belongs to the hip photographer (played by a spiky-haired Greta Gerwig) who rents a room upstairs. In the film, Abbie is kind of the gatekeeper of cool, teaching everyone around her about her interests in outré punk music and art. Bening’s character, Dorothea, knows how much her teenage son Jamie admires Abbie’s style and musical taste, so rather than being one of those parents who automatically dismisses the things her kid likes, Dorothea sneaks into Abbie’s room one night to try and understand, as she puts it, “this modern world.” She puts the needle on the record. Her face scrunches up in focused concentration. “Is that interesting?” she asks her companion William (Billy Crudup). He’s not sure. They try to dance to it, Dorothea shaking her head with staccato jerks, like she’s a kid with water in her ear. She gives up. They try the Talking Heads record instead.

The title sounds sprawling, overblown, improbably grand — 20th Century Women — but thankfully, it’s a decoy. Mike Mills’s new movie is full of small, precise moments like that one. It’s a work of specific and focused intimacy, capturing the details of some very particular people in a very particular time and place — Santa Barbara, California in the summer of 1979 — and letting larger observations emerge subtly, in the way its finely wrought characters and their diverging philosophies collide with each other. Dorothea, born in 1924, is a scrappy, independent single mom who came of age during the Depression; Abbie is a punky 20-something photographer who has already survived cervical cancer; Julie (Elle Fanning) is a precocious teen who smokes with practiced swagger and readily deploys the therapy-speak she’s inherited from her psychiatrist mother. They’re all connected to Jamie, Dorothea’s teenage son, but not in the way you’d expect from a typical coming-of-age story (especially one written and directed by a man).

Jamie isn’t a main character so much as the connecting tissue between these women — all fully formed protagonists in their own intersecting dramas. 20th Century Women is being released in a cultural moment when there is a widespread distrust of “mansplaining,” and of the kinds of people that Shelia Heti describes in her influential 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? as “just another man who wants to teach me something.” 20th Century Women inverts this trope by hollowing out the male main character and wondering, more imaginatively than didactically, what the women in his life have to teach and explain to him.

20th Century Women is Mills’s second intimately autobiographical film. Its predecessor was 2011’s Beginners, for which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar playing a lightly fictionalized version of Mills’s own father, who after the death of his wife and at the age of 75, came out and lived the last five years of his life as a gay man before succumbing to cancer. Plummer was a revelation in the role, and the movie had its charms; but the plot at its center, with its quirky-indie-movie clichés, was unfortunately well-worn. Mills’s direction was pushing toward a distinctive and inventive style — a combination of found-footage montage and poetic voiceover — but its perspective was limited to Ewan McGregor’s character, the least interesting person in the film.

He’s solved this problem in 20th Century Women (in many ways, an ode to his own mother) by opening the film up to multiple narrators. It opens with a gorgeous overhead shot of the coastline, all rocky and aqua, conveying a kind of serene omniscience (as does Roger Neill’s score). Dorothea tells us about Jamie’s birth and life so far, and Jamie, in his own words, tells what he knows of hers. Other voices chime in from time to time, telling us what they’re thinking or even reading: Julie’s early curiosity about sex is explained by her reading a passage from Judy Blume’s Forever; Jamie tries to connect with his mom by reading her Zoe Moss’s heartbreaking essay, “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete: The Aging Woman.” This all makes the movie feel collective, plural, democratic. Mills has found a way to convey interiority and exteriority at the same time, the gulf between who we are in our heads and who we are in the eyes of others. “You get to see him out in the world, as a person. I never will,” Dorothea tells Abbie during a late-night heart-to-heart. Abbie hands her a smeary, candid Polaroid of Jamie — not a perfect way of seeing, but the best she can do to expand her understanding, her worldview. It’s kind of what Mills is trying to do, too.

“Mike genuinely deserves the title of ‘feminist,’ which is, I don’t think, true of that many men,” Greta Gerwig told me on the phone last week. I asked her what made him a feminist, and what qualities she saw in him that she thought other men could learn from. Especially in the social media era, there is an increased visibility of men performing feminism, and doing it so loudly and insistently that it drowns out the voices and draws eyerolls from a lot of the women around them — call it Matt McGorry Syndrome. What Gerwig sees in Mills is something much quieter and subtler, more about counteracting the received wisdom of “mansplaining,” the idea that knowledge and knowing is inherently male. “He’s not afraid to not know,” she told me. “I think a lot of men feel that they need to know, and Mike opens up the possibility of not knowing and he’s excited by not knowing, which is also rare.”

Mills had his three lead actresses research the eras of their characters and read the books they might have read. Gerwig learned, she says, “more about punk culture than I thought I would ever know.” There’s a wonderful scene where Abbie raves to a very skeptical Dorothea about the band she’s listening to, the pioneering all-female punk band The Raincoats: They are what it sounds like when your passion is more powerful than your mastery of the tools you have to express it. Gerwig says the scene was scripted only loosely, and that she was paraphrasing one of the punk books Mills had her read. “I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know about the Raincoats before making the movie,” she says. “I knew some about punk, but I didn’t know particularly all the female punk bands, like the Slits and the Raincoats. But they were captivating and I felt like my own excitement about what punk was and what it could be grew exponentially.”

Abbie is a role model for the younger Jamie: She takes him to divey rock clubs, making him mixtapes, sharing her extensive record collection. We’re used to characters like this, but the keepers of this type of cultural knowledge in movies often tend to be men. There’s something unique and subversive about Abbie, and also her relationship with Jamie — platonic, cross-generational, reciprocally supportive.

Mills’s palpable affection for Abbie’s character is probably because she’s based off another member of his family: his sister, who also went to art school in New York in the ’70s and came back to California to be treated for cervical cancer. Gerwig spoke to her on the phone while researching the role, and she was surprised to learn how different the perception of cancer was in Abbie’s era. “In the ’90s, it was ‘Livestrong’ and shaving your head in solidarity with cancer survivors,” she says, “I didn’t really know until I talked to women and men about it was how in the ’70s — if you got cancer, you didn’t talk about it. Even if you died of cancer, often in the obituary they wouldn’t print that. They would just say another cause, or ‘died in her sleep.’ There was an incredible amount of shame around having cancer, not to mention cervical cancer or breast cancer. It was like cancer of your womanhood in a way.”

But Abbie is more complex than a tragic figure: Her “cancer of [her] womanhood” doesn’t mean she’s no longer a sexual being. Gerwig thinks this is another testament to Mills’s uncommon sensitivity as a filmmaker: “He comes at directing and writing from a place of being a listener,” she says, “So I think it’s one of the reason he’s able to create such moving characters…he tries to listen to people and let them reveal themselves to him, as opposed to imposing an order that doesn’t exist. And I think particularly with writing female characters, that’s why they’re so great.”

There’s a poignantly awkward scene in which Abbie tries to seduce William (the closest the movie comes to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) by showing him her new photography project. She’s taken a series of pictures of the things she owns — shoes, birth control pills, a picture of a picture of her mother — against a stark white backdrop to create a kind of self-portrait through her belongings. William says they make him a little sad; he doesn’t want to believe that our likes, interests, or especially our material possessions make us who we are. (He’s also the closest the movie comes to a hippie.)

Mills doesn’t present either of these philosophies as right or wrong, but it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker with such a perceptive eye for stylistic details is telling us that they don’t matter. They do, but maybe they’re just not the whole story. With 20th Century Women, Mills has finally found a way to convey that complex feeling he’s been grasping at for a decade now: The sense that we are the swirling sum of all the things that outwardly define us — the mismatched clothes and the Black Flag records and the feminist books and the generational circumstances and the televised presidential speeches playing ambiently in the background — but also something beyond them, the interior things and the intrapersonal things, the odd angles that only those closest to us can observe. Grand as its title might sound, 20th Century Women is actually about something so subtle it’s invisible to the naked eye: not women, or men, or even people so much as the spaces in between them.