20th Century Women begins with Dorothea’s (Annette Bening) husband’s Ford Galaxy burning in a supermarket parking lot. A remnant of the old days, when fathers were not only present but the leaders of their households, that car is fucked before we even get into it.
In the meat of Mike Mills’s (Beginners) autobiographical film about growing up with his mother, Dorothea, are four people in different generations with distinctly different world views. Dorothea grew up during the Depression, and lives in a house under perpetual reconstruction with her teenage son Jamie; the punk and women’s-lib enthusiast Abbie (Greta Gerwig); and William (Billy Crudup), a mechanic and general handy man. Feeling unable to raise Jamie to be a good man in the absence of his father, Dorothea turns to Abbie and Jamie’s friend/crush Julie (Elle Fanning) to help with the job. “History has been tough on men,” Dorothea says as she gives the women their assignment. “They can’t be what they were and they can’t figure out what’s next.”
It’s set in Santa Barbara in 1979, the year before the far-fetched, antiestablishment candidate Ronald Reagan would be elected president after a decade of slow growth and populist dissatisfaction. It was also the end of a powerful decade for Second Wave Feminism—the decade of Bella Abzug’s election to the House of Representatives, of the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, of women’s anger surrounding domestic and professional expectations breaking through the surface of public life. It was a time of profound anger and loss, one of having escaped the oppressive past, but also not quite in the liberated future.
That restlessness of not liking where you’re coming from but not knowing where you might be going is baked into the film at every step, from the aimless striving of the characters to the cultural angst fueling their decisions (as Abbie says of punk, “it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it”). Cutting it all up, portioning the characters’ experiences into distinct era-specific boxes, are iconic feminist works that the women read and instruct Jamie to read, like Judy Blume’s Forever, Susan Lyndon’s The Politics of Orgasm, Zoe Moss’ “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete.”
If I weren’t already susceptible to the idea of raising a man concerned with being good, I would have been taken in by the acting, which is universally flawless and surprising—Annette Bening deserves one thousand Oscars, and Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are sublime and acerbic (I’d like to live in the dinner party menstruation scene).
So, we see Jamie fill his life into the negative spaces around the experiences of the women: he stays with Abbie as she learns about her cervical cancer prognosis; he buys Julie a pregnancy test and learns about the importance of clitoral stimulation; he tries to deal with his mother’s feelings of invisibility. He is told, in turn, how to act: be strong, not sensitive; be attentive, not selfish; above all, be available.
But perhaps the most important bits of advice comes from William, the man, during that dinner party and really out of nowhere, “Jamie, I also wanna say never have sex with just the vagina. You have to have sex with the whole woman.”