Don’t trust a man on the subject of his parents. He’ll try to camouflage his experiences, unable to grapple with the reality that his perspective is arrested from childhood. He views his parents through the lens of a child and can’t will himself out of that reality, no matter how happy or unhappy his childhood may have been. That’s a critical obstacle to consider when approaching Mike Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women. It’s a (quasi)?- autobiographical account of Mills’ childhood, with a particular emphasis on the women that shaped his worldview. There’s a gleaming, nostalgic quality that speaks directly to our inability to confront our parents, particularly our mothers, without succumbing to wistfulness. But while Mills may be prone to romanticizing his milieu and characters, he contextualizes them within a historical framework.
It’s a brilliant move, effectively combining elements of ephemeral and personal within a broader political context. Mills examines his childhood through an American historical consciousness that spans from the Depression era to now: a film that’s centered on Carter-era humanism, weaned on FDR-New Deal rectitude, anticipating the collapse that comes with Reaganomics, yet possesses the savoir faire and pragmatism of an Obama age. 20th Century Women is as much an examination of the there and then as it is a tonic for the here and now.
The film’s temporal setting expands and collapses, pivoting around the summer of 1979 in Santa Barbara, California. Here we’ll find a confluence of generations under a single household. The beguiling narrative is centered on Dorothea (Annette Bening), who begins the film wondering what it will take to make a good man out of her adolescent son Jaime (Lucas Jade Zumann). She recruits the help of her housemate Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Lucas’ best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) in a concentrated effort to mold Lucas. This, in of itself, opens the film up to a variety of critiques, none perhaps more grating than the idea of another film centered on the upkeep and nurturing of a middle-class white kid. But Mills isn’t so much preoccupied by traditional notions of white male anxiety, but rather peers into the historical realities of the women that orbit Lucas’ life. He examines the three women as products of their time, whereby Lucas will go so far as to preface his mother’s antics by claiming that she’s “from The Depression”.
Mills takes his time with each character, never resorting to caricature. Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, the narrative possesses a relaxed, laid-back quality that observes its characters at their most uninhibited. This proves to be a major thematic quality of the picture, wherein Dorothea is never able to see her son at peace within his environment. It’s only after Abbie photographs Lucas at a party is she able to hold onto a token of her son as a person. In the interim, we observe Dorothea attempt to understand the culture that produces her son, where she goes to clubs with Abbie or gives Black Flag and Talking Heads records a spin. This all could be played as your typical exercise in generational humor – and make no mistake, the film is exceedingly funny – but the film steers past the obvious, fixated on the more personal and transient feeling of living in its moment.
With that, the film that 20th Century Women reminded me most was Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Beyond the two possessing strong, keenly-observed lead performances, the two are fixated on a historical memory that attempts, perhaps futilely, to preserve the past as an ongoing present. The dilapidated household of 20th Century Women is in a constant stay of disrepair, consumed by time yet rich for it. The women that pass through attempt to impart the values that they have cumulatively experienced, leaving behind an impression on youth that can only pay lip service to their history. And as 20th Century Women concludes, those totems of the past, both as material and passed along through dialogue, can only be preserved for so long before they become nourishment for termites or still photographs that barely scratch the surface of true Experience. But there’s real beauty in that discovery, guided by a principle to cherish the present and excise the day’s petty concerns. We spend our lives believing and learning in things that prove, time and time again, to be wrong or irrelevant. Perhaps we should just try to enjoy our stay here, one orbit around the sun at a time.