Film Review: 20th Century Women

The formative years of one’s youth are often filled with experiences shaped by individuals most dear to them. In constructing his latest film, 20th Century Women, Mike Mills explores the multifaceted nature of what it means to grow up amongst cultural change where conflicting ideologies begin to surface.

Jamie’s adolescence (Lucas Jade Zumann) sparks what is a period of uncertainty between himself and his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) who begins to feel lost trying to understand her son. The realisation of this ever-growing divide between the two results in Dorothea enlisting the help of the women in Jamie’s life, tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend and occasional house guest Julie (Elle Fanning). Together with handyman William (Billy Crudup) the five live together in Dorothea’s Santa Barbara home, sharing their knowledge and imparting wisdom to Jamie, whose voice narrates the film as if he is one of us, an observer in a world he seems to find foreign.

With the exception of Jamie’s story, which is introduced by Dorothea, most of the stories surrounding each of the characters in 20th Century Women are introduced by Jamie through the use of voiceover narrating years, dates, and observations of each character’s behaviour, which help to organise the film like chapters of a book.

The camera moves slowly and at times is barely noticeable, with characters often placed centre-of-frame placing emphasis on the importance of their characters. That said, the clothing choices of characters almost match that of their environments, with the colour palate of rooms used to almost mask their personalities or the expression of self through wardrobe choices that blend into the scene. The similarity in colour between character and environment acts to simultaneously show that characters are comfortable in their environment and suppress the importance of their existence as females, something that the audience is made aware of though conversations between characters who assume gender roles based on experiences and upbringing. No assumptions can be properly made for each character without understanding or acknowledging the complexities of characters who change as they experience and learn about themselves whilst teaching Jamie about the world as the film progresses.

Mills’ script draws from both personal and shared experiences shaped by history, time and place
with 20th Century Women referencing famous historical events, speeches, pop culture icons, music acts, and texts through the use of archival footage, photographs, music and set pieces.

Basing his female characters on his own experiences with the women in his life, including his mother, referenced by Dorothea’s character, Mills acknowledges the strength of women by writing a script that represents the complexities of women in the 20th Century by acknowledging each of their stories and ultimately providing them with a voice.

Whether the onscreen representation of the female as seen through the directorial perception of a man is deemed suitable, Mills’ 20th Century Women, despite its dominantly female-led cast, leaves questions as to a simplification of the female through what could be seen as stereotype or cliche, based purely on personal experiences which may be true but simplified and assuming of gender. There are preconceptions of how both males and females are supposed to be perceived and representations of characters who are self-aware, conscious of their own identities and that of Jamie’s as he navigates through adolescence.

Every female character is portrayed to have a strong sense of self and how Jamie should perceive the world by imparting their understanding of how men should be seen. Dorothea’s understanding of men is based both on her experience with her ex-husband, who is alluded to in the film but never mentioned by name, as well as socially set assumptions that male role models are suitable in showing Jamie how become a man. In following this, Dorothea looks to the example of handyman William to become Jamie’s mentor purely based on the commonality of gender.

Alternatively, Julie’s assumption of men is based on personal experience which inhibits her relationship with Jamie and limits their friendship to that of a platonic nature, rather than a romantic or sexual one, and Abbie who provides Jamie with books on feminism that inform him of alternative methods of seeing the world. Despite their shared gender, what surfaces are conflicting ideas on how Jamie should be raised and how he should act as a male influenced by their own past experiences.

In doing so, Mills’ 20th Century Women shifts the usual objectification of the female and turns it towards the male. He acknowledges that the development of strong female characters in films are complex and ever-changing, self-aware and simply put, not all women are and should be perceived as, the same.

The film releases in Australian cinemas on June 1. For other territories, check local listings.



Review by Addy Fong.