Mike Milles: 20th Century Women

Francisco Fontes reviews 20th Century Women, from writer/director Mike Mills, at the New York Film Festival. It opens in wide release this week.


There are few aspects in our lives that are as important to who we become than our families. They have the power to shape us, and to anchor us to the ground. But as important as a family is, they are in no way required to be a family connected by blood. The only characters who are blood related in 20th Century Women are Jamie and his mother Dorothea (his father, who abandoned them, is only seen at one moment reflected on the mirror lenses on Jamie’s sunglasses), but every other character in this reshape of a coming of age story become part of the same family. They share their experiences, learns from each other, and deeply love one other – like a good family should.

Jamie might be the central character to this tale, but the women in his life – who together are raising him – helping him move swiftly along (or not) the troubling times that teenage hood can be – are also undergoing their own changes, their own learning curves. And that is why I feel this is such an atypical coming of age story – because here, no matter how old they are, they are coming to age. Much like the house they all live in, they are always under renovation – improving, changing – but still holding on to their personal history.

Dorothea (Annette Bening in another glorious performance) feels that she knows her son less every day, never being able to see him “as a person in the real world.” Imagining that her counseling is not enough, she asks for help from Abbie and Julie (her tenant and her son’s best friend), and what ensues is a sort of social experiment – they each take an approach on what is the best way to teach him about life. “I can’t be his mom, I’m his friend! […] Don’t you need a man to raise a man?”, Julie, certainly the most unfit to take on such a huge responsibility (being his friend, being his age) wonders. But no matter how unfit, Jamie manages to learn what he needs to – not necessarily from what they try to teach him directly, but from what he gathers by their lives, personalities and experiences. The women in his life – these 20th Century Women – are essential.

The film might be didactic at moments – and Mike Mills is always illustrating the movie with stock footage or actual visual representations of what the characters are talking about (mostly during narrations, which are shared between Jamie and Dorothea) – but the final result is a touching, heartfelt portrayal of what it means to be human in a world that is constantly changing around us.

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