‘This day and age we’re living/ This cause for apprehension/ This speed and new invention/ And things like third dimension […] No matter what the progress of what may have improved / The simple facts of life are such they cannot be removed’ begins Rudy Vallee’s 1932 rendition of As Time Goes By, a tune that surfaces and recedes throughout writer-director Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. A musical motif for the film’s nucleus in Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) these lyrics also speak to the underlying musings in Mills’ supposed comedy-drama. I say ‘supposed’ as while there is a wry sense of humour and, sparingly, outright hilarious moments, Mills seems to be more concerned with wider, almost philosophical, reflections on gender, sex, family, culture and ideas and their relation to time. Often the humour and even the drama of Mills’ quirky but genial characters draw away into another dimension altogether. After being initially disorientating and only slightly tedious, I soon became at ease with Mills’ unconventional approach to telling a story about the nature of growing up and growing old, for both parent and child, and how acknowledging life’s transience is confronting and inevitable.
It is 1979, in sun-tinted Santa Barbara, South California. On the cusp is not only the conservative backlash of Reaganism and the demise of punk-rock, but the lives of this odd-ball ‘family’ who are centred around middle-aged Dorothea and her fifteen-year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Recently divorced, Dorothea struggles to raise her son and employs young artist lodger Abigail (Greta Gerwig) and repressed but confused teenage Julie (Elle Fanning), who visits late at night through his window, to bring him up. Lacking the father figure, entirely absent from Mills’ film, and finding little satisfaction in Elle’s question ‘Don’t you need a man to raise a man?’, Jamie is brought up amid a zeitgeist of pop-psychology, second wave feminism, revolutionary sexual politics and the distant jazz rhythms from the Depression Era. He navigates these often clashing outlooks, as he learns what it means to be a new man in late 20th Century America that, deservedly, has had its patriarchal attitudes and institutions tested. Equally, Dorothea grapples with this new and shifting world which is emotionally and sexually open, sometimes crudely so, yet also disconnected and disorientating. All the while, she is trying to understand the inescapable fact that her son is beginning to drift away from her and how she understands him ‘less and less everyday’.
Despite their female empowerment and enlightenment, both Julie and Abi are confronted by their own certainties as they are slowly unwound. We discover that they as women, like Dorothea, are products of their time and each beholden to their contemporary cultures and prevailing ideologies. Despite the liberation and perception afforded from a revolutionary period, they still struggle to satiate their desires or overcome their insecurities. As with Dorothea, both young women struggle with that same pervasive inevitability of time that Mills underlines thus: all of this is momentary and fading away before their eyes. For how resonant or profound are M. Scott Peck, Sisterhood is Powerful or President Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’ Speech to now? Mills is not so arrogant to suggest that these younger characters have all the answers: there is both celebration for the progressiveness of the ‘60s and ‘70s while some sorrow for what was lost from an earlier time. In adopting a more pensive approach in his writing, Mills doesn’t reduce these women to stereotypes of their respective eras. But this reflection isn’t without being a bit tongue-in-cheek, as much of the (satirical) humour comes to the fore when ideas and sensibilities clash. A pleasant dinner party interrupted by upfront discussions on menstruation or a session of Zen meditation stealthily undermined by desire to smoke are sardonic, clever and extremely amusing.
Which allows the actors to bring out a degree of empathy from their naturalistic performances and while each character embodies a certain strand of the period, they still are convincingly warm, awkward, beleaguered at times but ultimately honest. The threat of them becoming mere ciphers of these particular period sentiments is fortunately tempered by the emotional insecurities and care demonstrated between them, whether its Julie’s low self-esteem masked by psychoanalytic posturing or an intimate moment of understanding between Dorothea and Abi about motherhood. Mills occasionally indulges, such as Abi’s dress-sense and hair explicitly referencing Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and allusions to Dorothea as an Amelia Earhart figure, but these are passable for how genuinely beguiling this family becomes. Annette Benning negates an easier portrayal of middle-age as prudish or lofty for a more determined self-awareness and curiosity: eyes tightened to scrutinise this new epoch, ruffling her hair with a cigarette always between her fingers as she ponders. She conveys an effortless style, independence yet also grace, wisdom and loneliness in this central performance. Zumann, Gerwig and Fanning are also authentic and interesting in their youthful inquisitiveness and personal dramas, lacking the tedium or melodramatics that sometimes occurs in the portrayal of burgeoning young adults- especially thinking back to Piccioni’s similarly themed Questi Giorni (These Days). Billy Crudup is also surprising as an ex-hippy now handy-man William who has a penchant for pottery and entering into ambivalent relationships with women. The only other male in the drama, he is refreshingly un-paternal and decidedly not alpha-male which Crudup captures brilliantly in his diffidence. While not having the same urgent tenderness as the Hoovers in Dayton and Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, this ‘family’ do embody that same distinctive quirkiness but also befitting a time where that ideal ‘nuclear’ family structure had been brought into question.
Most intriguing, however, is the way Mills untether us from that specific time and place to another dimension outside of linearity and the characters’ sense of memory through the film’s unusual cinematography. By fragmenting their narratives into looping vignettes and using voice-overs of characters describing each other and events beyond their experience, reminiscent perhaps of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, I felt like we were stepping in and out of time itself. But I also perceived an agitation in the camerawork from being forced to stay too long and at the questionable reliability of the voices. Mills and cinematographer Sean Porter widen and reduce their scope, transition away and out of scenes, at time giving transitions a psychedelic blur of drug-induced tripping or time-travel, clearly inspired by Reggio’s Koyaanisqasi: Life Out of Balance. Often the soundtrack, with its strong period markers of Louis Armstrong, Bowie or The Talking Heads, morphs into Roger Neil’s synth compositions that unfurl this believable recreation of the period. Neil adds to the film’s wistfulness ambience and a deeper sense of melancholy, punctuated in the sequence when Dorothea visits a punk-rock party and has a foreboding, prophetic foresight of the decades to come and in the more subtly constructed but stirring juxtapositions in two dancing scenes. Holding both in long-shot, with Dorothea and William waltzing to Benny Goodman and Abi and Jamie free-styling to The Talking Heads, Mills highlights the contrast between two different generations and the consequences of both. For though Jamie and Abi are free to be ungainly but openly expressive, unrestricted by form and convention, they are not touching (or as touching) and connected as Dorothea and William. Conversely, there is also a sense that the older characters are bound and rigid, as forced to display a demonstrative romance as potentially false as the failed marriage Dorothea has left behind. While this melancholy is, of course, tinged with nostalgia, Mills is willing to both complicate this romantic sensibility in these characters and embrace a slightly surreal cinematic style to compliment it.
While threatening to tip 20th Century Women into the diffuse and abstract, distancing us too far from the drama and humour, Mills finds the right degree of quirkiness while Benning, Gerwig and others draw us back in with their honest and affecting performances. Its broader reflections are fortunately visible enough when connecting to the film’s heartening, if not paradoxically conventional, message found at its emotional and philosophical core: letting go and embracing that life, like time, must always moves on. If you are open enough to 20th Century Women’s strange charm and hesitation over where it may lead you, it is worth the time.