Film of the week: 20th Century Women (2016)
Filmmaker: Mike Mills
20th Century Women is a film rooted in memories, the memories of its writer/director Mike Mills. Memories of people, places, art, culture, fashion, politics and social movements collide to form an encyclopedic backdrop of a late 1970s California where the film is set in. He lends these memories to his principal characters, a 55-year-old single mother (Dorothea) and her 14-year-old son (Jamie), and in doing so, infuses the film with an undercurrent of poignancy and nostalgia.
Dorothea and Jamie live in a stately fixer-upper in Santa Barbara, a lazy coastal city north of Los Angeles, that they are renovating with the help of a boarder, William. Another boarder, Abbie, a photographer and punk aficionado who is recovering from cervical cancer, helps keep their social life animated. Julie is a childhood friend of Jamie who often sneaks in at night to sleep over because she despises her own home.
Jamie grows up amidst these three women of different ages who have different preferences in everyday choices — clothes, music, men, etc. — but they have a few traits in common — they are independent, witty, and deeply compassionate. He learns about stocks, punk rock, love, loss, feminism, menstruation, and feminine sexuality from them, albeit different things from the different ladies, who, at times, might not approve of what the others are teaching. His precocious knowledge of feminine sexuality even gets him punched and battered once, and when Dorothea asks him what the fight was about, he replies, “Clitoral stimulation,” followed by “I want to be a good guy. I want to be able to satisfy a woman.” Jamie means it in complete sincerity and Dorothea is bewildered.
These characters are wonderfully and persuasively detailed to the point that once you leave the cinema, you can still vividly recollect what clothes they wore, what hairstyle they sported, and what songs they listened to. They all have their contradictions and complexities, and the actors yield them so effortlessly that, by the end, they seem more real and human than the person sitting next to you. They are immensely likeable too and it comes down to the fact that they care, they empathise, and they are always there for one another. Dorothea tells Jamie that sometimes just being there is all we can do, and that she doesn’t understand why men always feel the need to fix things. That might as well be the essence of the film, an essence only a woman can bring.
By filming vignettes of their lives in a seemingly haphazard manner, abandoning linearity for a free-flowing structure that sometimes allows it to fleet across the past, present, and future in one line of narration, Mills makes this coming-of-age story more intimate and real — real because our actual memories operate non-linearly, in fragments, and through impressions. Through montages of old dated photos of real people, and the motif of beginning a shot outside a door frame and then slowly moving in (doors being the metaphorical divide between the past and the present), he is constantly attempting to actualise the memories in the present, which is quite heartbreaking in reality because it is doomed to not succeed.
Mills, who directed music videos before he forayed into feature films, never fully abandons his old style — there are title cards, picture montages, and fast motion sequences — which adds an emotional urgency to the film as if he has a lot of things to say and emotions to express but time is running out. In his solemn attempt to outrun time, Mills has actually created an intensely autobiographical and immensely empathetic film for the ages.