One of the more minor side effects of The Great Orange Republican Babadook muscling his slimy, fetid self onto the world stage this year is that a lot of movies made before “President-elect Donald Trump” was anything more than a distantly glistening speckle of shit on the horizon now take on a decidedly more gut-churning tinge. Like how Idiocracy has become a documentary, or the fact that Starship Troopers is a dead-on 9/11-Iraq War parable… that came out in 1997. The suckitude doth pervade all.
I found myself thinking a lot about the election while watching Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. On the surface, the two have nothing to do with each other. 20th Century Women takes place in California in 1979, when Trump was only a 33-year-old shithead instead of a 70-year-old shithead. The days are sunny and Jimmy Carter is President. And speaking of shitheads: There are none in this movie. It’s not bombastic, it’s not loud. It’s a sweet, somewhat meandering look at a found family living in a ramshackle Santa Barbara house: 55-year-old matriarch and single mom Dorothea, her teenage son and his best friend, a punkish boarder, and an aging hippie handyman. Nothing Trump-y here.
Except 20th Century Women, in a very real way, is about the evolution of the American female psyche. And I watched it a few days after white women got Donald Trump into the White House.
There’s no indication that Trump was on Mills’ mind when he wrote 20th Century Women’s script. The film is political in a general, rather than a specific sense, sort of a simplified “This Is Your Life” of how (white) women have fit into—and pushed back against—societal expectations throughout the 20th century. Disregard the gender politics angle, and 20th Century Women is still a great film, breezy and empathetic without devolving into sentiment. It’s based on the life of Mills’ mother, just like Beginners was based on his father, who late in life came out as homosexual. You can’t say Mills hasn’t gotten the best to bring his parents’ cinematic doppelgängers to the big screen. In Beginners, it was Christopher Plummer, who won his to-date only Oscar for the role. In 20th Century Women, Mills enlists Annette Bening, whose pitch-perfect performance would be worth the cost of admission even if the rest of the movie sucked (it doesn’t).
Born during the Depression, Dorothea had grand dreams of being a pilot that never materialized. Instead, she had her first and only child at the age of 40 and subsequently found herself divorced and grappling with single motherhood. Free-spirited and open-minded, Dorothea nevertheless finds herself left adrift in a constantly changing world. For example, punk music: the fuck? She makes an effort to relate, but in many ways she’s still old-fashioned, checking her stocks religiously in the paper and chain-smoking up a storm. “When I started, they weren’t bad for you,” she quips. “They were just stylish.”
(I see some of my late grandmother in Dorothea. They were both the same age and both limited by a society that never wanted to let them reach their full potential. Fiercely independent, my grandmother took enormous pride in her work at the local paper. If she’d been born in a different time, she probably would’ve ended up a professional journalist. Instead, she supported her journalism professor husband, my grandfather, who after decades of marriage left her for one of his grad students.)
Worried at the lack of a male role model in her son Jamie’s life, Dorothea enlists best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to teach him how to “be a man.” (The handyman, played by Billy Crudup, is dubbed well-meaning but a bit too much on the flaky side.) For Abbie, who came of age as the starry-eyed hippie era was winding down, that’s lending him her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, telling him about the importance of the clitoris, and introducing him to the punk scene and The Talking Heads. Julie, whom Jamie nurses a wicked one-sided crush on, is more jaded in a teenage sort of way, the result of having a touchy-feely therapist mother who thinks “mother-daughter bonding” consists of Julie being forced to participate in the group therapy sessions she leads. Sex is nothing to Julie, just a form of social currency—she does it all the time, even if she doesn’t like it all that much. It’s real connection that’s hard.
Located in the center of this web of feminine influence, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) never overpowers the story—this is still, as the title indicates, a movie about women, with Jamie basically serving as the way through which we get to know them. (It’s weird to compare a Mike Mills movie to Mad Max: Fury Road, right? OK then, I won’t do it.) And they’re all wonderful characters, played to perfection. These three generations of women are riveting to watch. It’s the sequel that I’ll skip out on.