In light of recent political events, women’s issues have been at the forefront of much discussion, and Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is a beautiful representation of three women trying to navigate through these very same issues. The film follows the story of a mother called Dorothea, played by the brilliant Annette Bening, and her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), as he attempts to negotiate the difficulties of coming of age. As the story progresses, Bening’s character becomes worried that she is not doing a sufficient job in raising Jamie as the moral individual she so desires, so recruits the help of Abbie, her lodger, superbly played by Greta Gerwig and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend and the object of his affection. In attempting to build Jamie up as a ‘good man’, the film raises pertinent questions regarding family, identity and happiness and in struggling to answer the questions her son proposes to her, it soon becomes clear that Dorothea, too, is struggling just as much with these big, life-defining questions.
Mills uses flashbacks, photography and voice overs in order to transport the audience back to the late 1970s. Some critics have argued that these effects add to the film’s feeling self-indulgent and affected. However, this seems an unfair claim to make. The cinematography and direction is part of what made this film so great; the perhaps cliché sweeping shots of windy roads, often with Jamie skateboarding down them, offers to the audience a warm feeling reminiscent of the Southern Californian evenings in which the characters of the film are enjoying. Additionally, the careful use of music, mostly acquired from Gerwig’s character’s collection of loud, purposely lo-fi punk and feminist records, suitably portrays the angst with which the young characters in the film are so familiar. It is these contrasts between the dreamy daze and the small angry acts of rebellion which so intricately portrays the intensity, and often confusion, of being a teenager.
This film, however, is not just aesthetically pleasing, it is also clearly political. As a result of Dorothea’s attempts to bring Jamie up a moral man, he becomes a feminist. However, it is not through Dorothea that Jamie receives his feminist education, it is from Dorothea’s two recruits, Abbie and Julie. Abbie gives Jamie ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’ to read and it is from that book that he learns about modern feminism and it is from his and Julie’s frank conversations about sex that he learns about true female sexuality. The film features a brilliant scene in which Abbie, suffering from cramps, forces all the guests at Dorothea’s dinner party to say, in unison, the word ‘menstruation’ in order to normalise it, something which Dorothea finds rather unpleasant. In order to portray truly human characters, Mills creates Dorothea as such that she finds much of this new feminism too radical, a natural reaction of a woman her age living in that era. However, this scene is one that would not be out of place in a film set in the modern day. It could be said that Mills is not only triumphing feminism but also highlighting that women’s issues and all the stigma attached is still very much ubiquitous today and in some cases, not much has changed since the late 70s. Perhaps Mills is urging us all to chant ‘menstruation’ in an attempt to truly end this stigma once and for all.
20th Century Women is a beautiful film with brilliant acting that tackles real human issues with real human feeling and certainly one which is worth a watch.
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