By Laura Kern
20th Century Women chronicles the lives of three women and a teenage boy growing up in Southern California in the changing political climate of the 1970s; the film debuted at the New York Film Festival in October, but its wide release in January brought it to the attention of viewers and awards shows alike. In the film, Dorothea (Annette Bening) is the aging single mother of the young teenage Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). When she finds herself drifting apart from her son, Dorothea decides to enlist the help of two women, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to help raise him.
But make no mistake: 20th Century Women is no simple coming-of-age story. True, director Mike Mills crafts an honest, powerful film about growing up—but he emphasizes that this growth does not begin and end as a teenager. Rather, through his anecdotal style of filmmaking, Mills gives equal attention to each character’s journey, careful to show just as much change in Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie as he shows in Jamie. Mills develops each character with care and precision. Viewers get intimate peeks into the lives of the women and Jamie, and an opportunity to witness the battles—between strength and weakness, genuineness and hypocrisy, independence and reliance, and more—that constantly wage within everyone, regardless of age or gender. Further, this flawed and often humorous cast of characters complicates the broad label of “feminist”: though Dorothea, Abbie, Julie, and Jamie are all self-proclaimed feminists, they are each so different in ambition and personality that it seems impossible that they share any identity.
Without a doubt, the movie’s power comes from its talented actresses. Elle Fanning is powerfully vulnerable and candid as Julie—her long blonde hair and wide blue eyes give her an air of innocence that contrasts with her rebellious lifestyle of sex and drugs. Interestingly, Greta Gerwig has the opposite effect: her short, messy red crop matches Abbie’s taste in punk music and radical feminist literature, but as the movie progresses, the audience begins to see her softness. Gerwig’s tone remains tough and caustic even during expressions of her vulnerability, and she allows Abbie’s flaws to come through as clearly as her strengths. Most noticeably, however, the incomparable Annette Bening shines as the slightly frumpy, brutally honest, and stubbornly practical Dorothea. Most of Bening’s acting makes Dorothea into a humorous, if frustrating, character, but throughout the film, her insecurities burn holes in her confident persona like the glowing tip of her ever-present cigarette. Bening’s performance is most powerful during her interactions with Jamie, and in their scenes together, it is clear that Bening’s talent inspires an unparalleled performance in Zumann as well. Like any real teenager, his character flows between self-assurance and uncertainty. That realness is at the heart of every character in 20th Century Women: each is unapologetically human, which makes the movie timeless despite the specific setting dictated by music, costuming, and cultural references.
Through this timelessness, however, Mills also highlights the lack of social change in the 40 years since the movie took place. He critiques the idea of “appropriate” feminine sexuality, exposes the unique challenges that women face as they age, and makes subtle nods to the benefits Planned Parenthood provides for women (which are, I must stress, wider than access to safe abortions). Unlike the typical feminist movie, which emphasizes change across generations, 20th Century Women suggests that these issues are as prevalent today as they were in the 1970s. Admittedly, a movie like 20th Century Women would never have been made 40 years ago, but Mills’s conscious (and often discouraging) connections between the past and the present call into question the notion that the movie’s mere production constitutes “progress.” Even the film’s wide release date highlighted the lack of real change regarding women’s rights: 20th Century Women arrived in theaters on January 20, the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The following day, millions of protesters across the world marched to defend the same rights that Julie, Abbie, and Dorothea exercised in the film. Modern activists warn against “falling backwards,” but this film innovatively wonders how far we have truly stepped forward.
Not far, responds the film industry. The Academy Awards overlooked the women of 20th Century Women, despite the actresses’ recognition from other awards shows, including Annette Bening’s best actress nomination at the Golden Globes. Of the movie’s cast and crew, only Mills—a man—received an Oscar nod for his work on the screenplay. True, Mills’s writing grounded the film, but the actresses truly made it great; even when presented with three fantastic performers, the academy overlooked the stars of 20th Century Women.
Perhaps the label of “feminist film” was just too inflammatory for the Academy; however, through his careful characterization and inclusion of multiple perspectives, Mills suggests that even putting 20th Century Women in this category is a misstep. In today’s political climate, identifying yourself as a feminist separates you from the majority, just as the term “feminist film” separates 20th Century Women from mainstream media. In fact, modern culture dictates that you must separate yourself—you must work with those who support the cause and against those who try to thwart you. The anxiety of losing your autonomy is too much to take sitting down, so you become one part in a larger whole, just one marcher fighting for rights that half the country believes you do not deserve. Media and politics have made feminism a major, all-or-nothing life decision. According to popular culture and news outlets, either you must spurn the label and claim again and again, “I am not a feminist”—perhaps because you like baking and the color pink, or because you think men should continue opening doors and paying for dates, or because you want to have kids someday—or you must let feminism consume you.
But Mills reminds the world that feminism is relative. Julie, the young, willowy blonde; Abbie, the alternative, secret romantic; Dorothea, the aging, fretting mother; and Jamie, the rebellious teen, are all self-proclaimed feminists. However, by telling these characters’ stories from multiple perspectives, Mills shows that even though they exist within the same era, the same geography, and the same house, their versions of feminism are vastly different. Each expresses feminism and femininity in a unique way, and sometimes that expression changes from moment to moment. They are dynamic, deeply human characters with histories and experiences, just like today’s feminists—so why should 21st century women be allowed to be any less individualized?
The label of “feminist” has pushed Julie, Abbie, Dorothea, and Jamie into the same story—they have become parts in a whole. Mills, however, highlights their differences under this umbrella, separating them and drawing them out from the political collective. 20th Century Women shows the complexities and complications of honest human narratives—but because most of these humans are women, and because they are exercising their sexual and political rights, the movie becomes a “feminist film.” Mills does not claim that this label is bad; it is simply misleading, because the film tells a much bigger story. Feminism can be shaving your head and casting off traditional standards of beauty; it can be dedicating yourself to a career; it can be getting married and having children. Feminism is the quest for equality—it is the right to choose your destiny, no matter your sex or gender. “Feminist” is not as narrow and straightforward as modern politics seeks to make it, and Mills sheds light on this diversity through the breadth of perspectives that he represents throughout the movie.
But “diversity,” like “feminism,” is a relative term: the one way in which this movie disappoints is that its all-white cast fails to recognize the intersectionality of race, religion, and sexuality within feminism. Women of color, queer women, and transgender women are frequently overlooked in discussions of feminism, despite their inarguable influence on the feminist movement and the development of the “modern woman.” Regrettably, 20th Century Women fails to break this mold and deal with other forms of persecution that relate to feminism. Its late 1970s setting—following the civil rights movement and during the explosion of the American gay rights movement—makes this omission even more upsetting. “Women’s issues” do not start and end with women who talk, look, and love like Julie, Abbie, and Dorothea; this problematic, exclusionary approach to feminism has, in fact, undermined the modern feminist movement and precluded the necessary strength and unity among activist groups to oppose the current discriminatory political climate. Mills celebrates differences among feminists, yes, but he does not celebrate all types of difference—he fails to show his audience that no version of feminism is better or worse than another. This lack of true diversity undermines the themes that Mills tries to set up through his multiple-perspective representation of feminism. Though 20th Century Women is a good starting point, it is far from the inclusive, empathetic story that this generation needs to inspire the 21st century woman to fight oppression of all genders, races, religions, and sexualities.
The solution? Write this story—or live it—yourself.