You’ll come across a few films in your lifetime that will give you that feeling. A feeling so warm and personal that you know it will be on your mind and in your heart forever. I watched 20th Century Women for the first time around a year ago and it has been on my mind ever since.
Welcome to our second review within our new series here at Second Union! If you haven’t had the chance to check out our first in the series, Owen’s review of La La Land, please do so. It’s an extremely insightful read.
Major spoilers are included in this review and are discussed at great length. You have been warned.
An Indie Ensemble
Set in 1979 and with an all-star cast, this contemporary comedy-drama film takes place in the ocean-side city of Santa Barbara, California. Jimmy Carter is burnt out on TV, young girls smoke cigarettes and the popular trends are skateboarding and punk rock music.
Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is a 15-year-old high school student going through a very pivotal time in his life – he’s coming of age. He lives with his single mother Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), who runs a boarding house.
Dorothea has two tenants, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a talented photographer being treated for cervical cancer; then there’s William (Billy Crudup), a mellow, ex-hippie carpenter and mechanic who is helping Dorothea renovate her home. Last but not least, promiscuous girl Julie (Elle Fanning). Julie and Jamie have a very loving and close friendship; it’s not really a secret that he has a giant crush on her.
Throughout the first half of the film, we watch as Dorothea comes to a realization: Jamie is growing up to be someone she doesn’t quite recognize. Scrambling for help, Dorothea turns to Julie and Abbie to take her son under their wing to make sure he is raised the right way.
Loosely basing this film on his adolescence, director Mike Mills calls 20th Century Women a “love letter to my mother”. He proves that adding a personal touch will continuously leave the viewer wanting to know more.
Mills also drew inspiration from his personal life with his film Beginners (2010). It follows a man whose elderly father comes out as gay late in life, as his own father did. This makes his films so easy to connect to as they are real life stories and situations that people go through everyday.
A Love Letter to Platonic Relationships
Young Jamie is overflowing with frustration due to his non-reciprocated love towards Julie. She climbs up almost every evening to Jamie’s room to spend the night – but just to talk. He very clearly wants more but reluctantly settles for less (after persisting) because it’s better than nothing.
Abbie ends up giving Jamie some literature on feminism that she has previously read. These books start to make him extremely sensitive to the women around him. Constantly surrounded by eccentric and complicated women, Jamie finds comfort in his platonic, inter-generational and reciprocally supportive relationship with Abbie.
The Many Definitions of Self
What is so special and endearing about this film and its deeply real characters is that they aren’t quirky in the usual generic, cliché indie film way. They are as unconventional and insecure as people are in real life. These things are extremely hard to come by in a film.
Everyone fits exactly into character mode like a pair of those good butt jeans that take years to find, specifically Gerwig and Bening. By the end of this masterpiece, you truly feel like these characters are your new best friends.
Cinematographer Sean Porter uses framing and every inch of light to his advantage. I say this with no hesitation: this may be the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s breathtaking. He pushes the camera slowly towards the characters sitting around the kitchen table; or pulls it back, with the camera moving towards the door. It’s hard to pick up on a first watch, almost impossible; from what I picked up on, the camera is Jamie’s perspective in the future, as if to say, “Oh, right … I remember that.”
20th Century Women is a portrait of a group of people at a specific moment in history, how they lived, what they argued about, what genre of music they listened to, what they ate and what they cared about. Everything makes sense and nothing seems like it could have been left out. My favorite thing about this motion picture is that it allows itself to be messy. It doesn’t try too hard. The characters we get to know along the way are allowed to breathe.
People are beautiful, messy and complex.
They are real.