Mike Mills stated has stated “feelings are my genre.” 20th Century Women is his semi-autobiographical 21st reflection on masculinity.
The film is led by matriarch, Dorothea (Annette Bening) who is coming to terms with the changing world around her, both socially in 1979 and personally as her son is a teenager becoming his own man.
She wants her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) to know he does not have to conform to traditional, damaging notions of masculinity. Dorothea tells him “Men always feel that they have to fix things for women, but they’re not doing anything. Some things just can’t be fixed. Just be there, somehow that’s hard for all of you”.
Handyman William (Billy Crudup) is a positive male role model that Dorothea feels Jamie (can look up to, while having his friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) can teach him how to be a feminist man who understands the issues the women face.
The film could as easily be retitled 20th Century Family, as the characters become each other’s surrogate, chosen family and share many formative experiences together. This dynamic highlights how by 1979 many people are living outside the traditional nuclear family typical of previous generations. They share joyful moments but are all there for each other during their most difficult times. As Dorothea states in the film “the people that help you might not be who you thought or wanted, they might just be the people who show up.” These characters show up for each other when it matters most, that’s what being family means to them.
All the characters have been shaped by different eras and attitudes of the 20th century. Each central character has their own section somewhere within the non-linear narrative introducing spectators to key moments from their lives. Montage means put together or assemble in French. Here Mills decides to use several montages to highlight events and life experiences that have shaped each central character, in other words experiences that have assembled their current persona. This is cleverly illustrated through scrapbook-style montages that depict political and personal events that have become pieces of who they are. Mills uses a mixture of character photos and archival footage to create an insightful snapshot of their memories.
For Dorothea he uses archival footage from the Great Depression to reflect on how growing up in that time created her resilient personality. Benning’s performance is electric and unforgettable, one of the strongest of her career.
Throughout the film the characters narrate parts of their past prior to 1979 and refer to events in their future further illustrating the importance of this period of their life, being still significant to them, a foundational time in their lives. It feels as if they are in conversation with their younger 1979 selves updating them on where they are now. This feels poignant as it causes the spectator to reflect on their youth, how their life turned out and the people who helped shape who they are today. As Gerwig’s Abbie states “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not gonna be anything like that”.