Mike Mills, the director of 20th Century Women, describes the film as a love-letter to the women who raised him.
It’s a partly autobiographical coming of age story about a boy called Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives with a group of assorted misfits in a boarding house owned and run by his divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Benning).
The film progresses through a series of heartwarming moments, disagreements and explores the boys developing sexuality, and the various challenges the characters are grappling with. Each is flawed and carrying either a secret or impediment but at heart, they are all decent people. Dorothea herself is trying to connect with her son but finds it increasingly difficult and in desperation, attempts to get the other women around Jamie to help engage with him. The irony of that is Jamie was always connected to his mum.
In naming it 20th Century Women, Mills sets himself a major task – to convey a sense of what issues American women were dealing with in the 1970s. It’s a big ask for a movie, and the result is somewhat mixed. To be sure it is about women finding their voice and asserting rights to their own destiny, but it is no feminist polemic. For a start, the film is set in California which is hardly representative of the deeply repressive attitudes to the women globally. Secondly, there is no major antagonist in this movie except the women themselves.
It seems to me that Mills is actually trying to make sense of his own confused feelings about his upbringing.
Clearly, in making his love-letter to the women who raised him, Mills feels their strength and struggles influenced him in a very profound and personal way. Yet as his fictional self admits at the end, he still finds it impossible to describe his mother. That is a very profound admission and one that resonates with me since I am not sure how I would describe this film.
What remains are some questions – why could he not describe the woman who gave birth to him?
Is it a personal failure on his part in not being willing to understand her? Or is it a recognition that she was flawed and didn’t know how to relate to him? Perhaps it is simply an observation that all human beings are complex, and even the ones we know well, never quite share all that is within them.
In cinemas 31st May 2018
20th Century Women
Starring: Annette Benning, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Directed by: Mike Mills