You can explain what 20th Century Women is about in many ways. It’s a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy called Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) coming to terms with his feelings for the opposite sex (in this case Julie, played by Elle Fanning) and the pressures exerted by his peers. It’s a film about midlife apathy and loneliness as experienced by Jamie’s mother, Dorothea (the excellent Annette Bening). And finally, it’s a quirky exploration of the burgeoning punk scene and the feminist movement in late 1970s Southern California.
Above and beyond all these particular characterisations, Mike Mills’ new effort is about life: about the changing relationships and the minor triumphs and tragedies common to us all. That might sound heavy, but 20th Century Women is anything but. Bright light and dazzling colour dominate, as befits the Santa Barbara setting, while every scene is packed with moments that are in turn engaging, amusing, poignant, awkward, heart-warming, heart-breaking and profound. Mills manages to combine the naturalistic performances with an atmosphere of grandeur and sublime detachment, thanks to Sean Porter’s artful visual style – think slow, gliding camerawork and meticulously framed compositions – and voiceover commentary in which characters speak from an indeterminate future – as if from beyond the void. What we are watching feels simultaneously like the present and yet also like a perfectly preserved, timeless artefact.
At times, 20th Century Women demonstrates a level of psychological and emotional sensitivity that is a joy to behold. It is a study of what it means to be a parent and an older person surrounded and at times bewildered by the young. In one memorable exchange, Dorothea perfectly expresses the communicative barriers of motherhood when she tells Jamie’s friend Abbie (Greta Gerwig) that “you get to see him outside in the world, as a person” – implying that she herself does not. Dorothea constantly has her authority challenged by Jamie and Julie, who – full of preening confidence after having half-digested the latest volumes of feminist philosophy and psychoanalysis – feel superior to the “people from her time” that “never admit they’re wrong”.
At a more basic level, Mills’ film is about the existential dilemmas shared by each passing generation. Jamie, Abbie and Julie might see the punk movement and the latest radical philosophy as the long-awaited arrival of the “truth”, but as a matter of fact they simply represent one camp in the never-ending search for meaning – with the other represented by hardened cynics like Dorothea, who laments that “It’s 1979, and nothing means anything anymore”. While Mills certainly embraces and rejoices in the period aesthetic, he does so with a knowing glance, all the while aware of the fleeting nature of fads and crazes.
In its refusal to put a defining full stop after any of its characters or events, 20th Century Women speaks to the ultimate inscrutability of each and every human being. Instead of resolving matters in a forced narrative climax, Mills is content to leave conflicts unresolved, intentions unexplained and ends untied, just as they tend to be in real life. A few elegiac words from an older, retrospective Jamie about his mother speak volumes: “I’ll try to describe what she was like. But it will be impossible.”
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka