In Mike Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women, Annette Bening plays a single mom, Dorothea, who’s suddenly struggling to understand her teenage son Jamie. So she invites two other significant women from his world in her to her home to lay out an unusual proposal: Will they help her raise Jamie at the height of his adolescent angst?
Julie, an impossibly cool porcelain doll of a teenager (played by a never-better Elle Fanning), asks, “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Dorothea responds.
The exchange is one of many highly quotable bits of dialogue in the film, as well as its thesis statement.
20th Century Women is a tribute to Mills’ own mom and the era (the late 1970s) and place (Santa Barbara) of his youth, but elements of it felt deeply familiar to me, despite my upbringing in suburban Pennsylvania of the late 1990s. For me there was no skateboarding that could be set to a dreamy Talking Heads soundtrack, just a brief flirtation with rollerblading that lasted about as long as your average Green Day song.
But the question at the core of Mills’ film felt most relevant to my own life: What kind of man does a boy become when he is raised primarily by women?
That description sells short both Mills’ life and my own, since we both did have fathers. His previous film, 2010’s Beginners, was inspired by his father’s coming out of the closet at age 75. I don’t foresee ever making a film about my father—let alone one that could become an Oscar vehicle for Christopher Plummer—but he did always have a role in my life. Still, as Mills shows, women’s influence can loom particularly large.
A chief criticism of 20th Century Women is the absence of plot. Narration, slowly sweeping aerial shots of the landscape and isolated, static images of meaningful objects contribute to a sense that the film is more concerned with capturing memories of how a time and place felt than with telling a traditional narrative story.
There is nothing more tragically comical than the act of growing up. The women in the film are still navigating their life paths alongside Jamie as they help him grow up, instilling in him their own personal issues and insecurities.
Julie is the object of Jamie’s love and lust as well as a primary educator about what he should avoid in more advanced stages of young love. She may be more sexually experienced and adventurous, but she has her own anxieties, mistakes and regrets. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) the 20-something struggling artist living as a boarder in their ramshackle Victorian house, exposes Jamie to the punk scene, conceptual photography and feminist thinking she idolizes.
The two older girls in my own house never had to audition for their roles, which were thus less clearly defined and, to me, less welcome. My oldest sister was not barging into my room to excitedly share the latest punk vinyl, but to yell at me for stealing her favorite indie rock CD. There wasn’t a sly smile at mutually conspiring to sneak out to an underground club, but a world class eye-roll when I’d tag along too closely on college visits.
But both Jamie and I were exposed in important ways to worlds beyond our own, which could only be shared by people we trusted.
During adolescence, “cool” is the most valuable currency; to measure it by women’s standards means to view women not only as family members or crush objects but as admirable and valuable people.
20th Century Women shows how boys can benefit from learning about the power, heartbreak and allure of young love from a female perspective. Julie’s sexuality is complicated, an act of both power and insecurity, of discovery and banality. Her and Jamie’s discussions about sex are loaded with an emotional and physical gravitas rarely matched among actual teen boys. Jamie gets a rare window into some of the damage teenage love can do to a girl, but Julie is never painted exclusively as a victim, which is important for Jamie to understand.
Meanwhile, the feminist-tinged lessons in female sexuality Abbie imparts to Jamie have hilarious consequences when contrasted with the knowledge displayed by the film’s other male characters. While the copies of Seventeen, YM, and Teen Vogue that were always within arm’s reach during my youth were a far cry from being handed a copy of The Feminine Mystique, they still provided an alternative perspective during my formative years. (I still stand ready to volunteer for a yet-to-be-funded study on the long-term effects of taking too many “What Your Type of Crush Says About You” quizzes as an adolescent.)
At one point in the film, Julie asks Dorothea, “What about you? It’s always about the mother,” once again verbalizing a central argument of the film. And in 20th Century Women it really is all about Dorothea. Whether as the object of Jamie’s affection and hatred or as the complicated central character in her own story, Dorothea is an enthralling force to be reckoned with. Mills never puts Dorothea on a pedestal which makes her all the more engaging to watch. Her positive attributes can nearly all be followed by “almost to a fault”—as in self-assured (almost to a fault), generous (almost to a fault), curious (almost to a fault)—but you never doubt the love and care she devotes to her son. Dorothea is a mother, but also a fully realized human being. And because he sees her as nuanced, Jamie’s understanding of women is nuanced, too.
There is another tenant in the house, an aimless new-age handyman named William (Billy Crudup). There is a reason, though, that Dorthea doesn’t invite William into her kitchen confidential, and it echoes her answer to the question originally asked by Julie. William’s gender offers little of value in raising Jamie; that commonality offers no connection. She sees a potential in the two women to teach and guide Jamie that she doesn’t in William. When Jamie catches wind of his mother’s plan to enlist additional human resources to raise him, he is annoyed and embarrassed, but he never questions why she asked other women, not men.
Had you told me when I was 15 that I would some day sing the praises of being raised in a predominantly female household—well, you can imagine how I might have responded. I would have begged you to remember the constant no-vacancy status of the bathroom; the endless hours spent waiting outside dance recitals; the fights that ended in me tied up in tights; the taped NYSNC music videos replayed at war-crime frequency. At the time those experiences were too fresh, too immediate to be referred to as memories. And as Mills shows, some things are best reflected in hindsight, like realizing that who you are as a man is in large part thanks to women.