Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is by no means a sad movie, but I am struggling to think of any other recent film that had as devastating of an impact on me. Much of that is due to Annette Bening’s exceptionally thoughtful portrayal of a brilliant, independent woman who reminded me so much of my own mother, even down to the circumstances of her eventual passing (it is a crime that Bening was overlooked by the Academy for this, her most masterful of performances). But it’s a conversation between Bening and her son, played by Lucas Jade Zumann, where she criticizes the need of men to always try to fix women’s problems rather than simply listen that better serves as an example of this film’s potency. That conversation, and many other conversations like it in the rest of the film, indicates that 20th Century Women is a tragedy, where the tragedy isn’t the downfall of any one character but society’s inability to listen to women and let them be while selfishly and condescendingly attempting to “fix” the problem of women.
Disappointingly labeled by some viewers as the story of Zumann’s Jamie, 20th Century Women is in fact exactly what its title describes, a brilliant depiction of the lives of three extraordinary women at a specific moment in the fitful 20th century. At the exact center of the film is Bening’s Dorothea, a woman who grew up in the Depression, aimed to be a pioneering air force pilot during WWII and instead had to settle for being the first woman draftsman at a California company. Jamie is her only child, born when she was 40, the product of a short marriage to a man she ended up immensely disappointed by and now only fondly remembers for his ability to write and scratch her back at the same time.
The film’s marketing makes 20th Century Women out to be a zany, twee parenting film, where Jamie’s parents are his mother, their boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) but that’s not quite right. Jamie is a fully developed character but his true purpose is as a prop, a grounding mechanism for the audience and a reflection of the failures even “good” men have when it comes to respecting and encouraging women. You can draw a parallel between 20th Century Women and John Irving’s The World According to Garp, but 20th Century Women is notable for flipping that work’s structure, making Garp a perpetual outsider who will never get it and centering his mother, turning her into more than an accidental symbol for women’s lib. 20th Century Women is The World According to Garp without the spite and misfortune, more honestly encouraging of women’s anxieties and frustrations than confused and baffled by them.
So when Dorothea asks for Abbie and Julie’s help in shaping Jamie, it should be viewed as more than a mother’s concern about what kind of man her son will become, it’s also an effort by an outgoing generation to understand the philosophies and wants of the incoming one. These women are unified by the ways men in their personal lives and on a social level have let them down, but the way they seek to emerge from that general disappointment and how they react to it differs greatly. Abbie is a cancer survivor artist who is both repulsed by and drawn to the power relationship between young ambitious women and older mentorly men. Julie is a young woman who embraces open sexuality and desires strength in men but is less comfortable being emotionally intimate with them.
Julie’s approach to relationships is also at the center of the film’s chief conflict, that of Jamie’s feelings for her and his inability to recognize why she doesn’t want to be with him physically but values their platonic relationship. In a sense, Jamie is the quintessential nice guy; in modern times, he’d probably be protective of her in public and then in private bemoan being “friend zoned.” The pair have numerous conversations about sex and in most of them, Jamie is selfishly angered by Julie’s willingness to have casual relationships with “bad guys” while refusing to sleep with Jamie. One of the most awkward and important moments in the film comes when Julie tells Jamie she never comes from sex and he starts to try to convince her that he has studied all the ways to give women an orgasm and could help. Julie immediately shuts this down and makes it clear that for her, and many women, sex isn’t about orgasms but about less quantifiable experiences. For her, pleasure comes from the discovery and uncovering of another human, the “way they always get a little desperate,” the sounds they make, how their bodies differ from what’s expected. Jamie is a stand in for all men who want to fix a woman’s problems while blatantly ignoring the actual things women are telling them, selfishly viewing himself as a solution while refusing to acknowledge women don’t need men’s solutions.
20th Century Women has been criticized by some for a perceived centering of Jamie but the way it explores his relationship with Julie indicates to me that Mills’ intent with the film is to make men more aware of the less blatant sexism and regressive tendencies they take part in. In Mills’ typical style, it works in montages and voice over narration making us privy to characters’ internal thoughts and future events at key moments but unlike Beginners, which explored a man’s relationship with his estranged and newly out father, 20th Century Women is more socially conscious and broad. The way Mills depicts Jamie’s budding wokeness, for instance, as he hungrily devours feminist texts Abbie gives him then juxtaposes that with his clumsy attempts to “teach” his mom these lessons says more about Jamie’s failure to actually “get” feminism than any monologue or data set ever could.
But throughout it all, the strength and compassion of the women is on full display, as is their acceptance of the disappointments men bring. You can view Billy Crudup’s William as a potential future vision of Jamie, a man all of the women in the film are frequently embarrassed by and disappointed in but who nonetheless serves as an acceptable male. William is notably not an asshole or an easily recognizable chauvinist, he is instead a complex failure, a guy who has read all the right books and says all the right things but still fails to take responsibility for the elements of his personality that keep women from wanting to commit to him. For Dorothea and Julie he is mostly a failure for not having any real understanding of what he wants; Julie can see the strength in him but also his inadequacies while Dorothea can see the same and take enough pity on him to try to help him grow out of it. For Abbie, he’s an okay hook up who disappoints her for selfishly thinking he means more to her than he actually does and preemptively rejecting her to seek out a relationship with Dorothea, who is even less interested in him.
Overall, William serves as a reminder that women are perpetually forced to look past and forgive men for what they lack, but are nearly never afforded the same courtesy. The minor aggressions each of the women face– Jamie trying to make Julie into his vision of what she is rather than who she actually is, Dorothea being viewed as a lesbian simply because she doesn’t settle for unworthwhile men, Abbie informing Jamie that when other men tell sex stories he must just agree and never ever question them– shouldn’t be anywhere near as commonplace as they are in society but they are, so women are forced to manuever around them in every interaction with men in their daily lives.
20th Century Women is intended as a statement to all the men who think they are above sexism but in their refusal to recognize these smaller, subtler sexist acts they take place in continue to hold down the women they profess to love and admire. 20th Century Women isn’t a film about a man, or about raising men, but about doing more to help and encourage women while listening to their concerns about all the things that exhaust them in our society. Because it’s the abundance of these subtle slights that have helped get us to the unfortunate place we are now in in 2017, nearly four decades after when it’s set.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover