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Review: 20th Century Women

Molly Hanley, A&E Writer

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Our lives are defined by moments. Whether those moments are in private or shared with another person, each experience one has shapes their identity.

In Mike Mills’ 2016 film 20th Century Women, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) recruits two women to help raise her fifteen year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) while living in Santa Barbara in 1979. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a twenty-something punk rock feminist and cervical cancer survivor who teaches Jamie about the importance of being an individual and making your own decisions in life. The second woman is Julie (Elle Fanning), who is Jamie’s long time best friend and love interest. Along with them, Billy Crudup plays William, a man hired by Dorothea to help her renovate her early 20th century home. William tries, but fails miserably, to be a positive male influence on Jamie. Women is told in vignettes by focusing on moments in the character’s lives, which center around Jamie’s personal development. These moments fuse together and build upon each other; they are fragments of a bigger picture, and are stepping stones that aid the characters in deciding on what kind of people they want to be.

What really struck me about Women is how each scene perfectly captures exactly what the characters would actually do in the situations they find themselves in; rather than acting unrealistically in situations based on what the director wants. This adds to the charm and nostalgia of the film. The honesty of the actors and the quirks the individuals have are comical, but also make my heart sink a little. Especially with Julie. Throughout the film, she admits to Jamie how she allows high school guys to take advantage of her. She reveals how she feels about the world, and often accepts societal norms that are presented to her. She makes me want to scream out no you can’t treat yourself like that, you are so cool and you deserve so much better. However, Mills chose to write her that way for a reason; she is a character that most teenage girls can relate to.

On the other hand, Abbie is exactly the kind of woman I hope to be when I grow up. She refuses to compromise her beliefs to comfort those around her. And, she is sincere when teaching Jamie about music, feminism and individuality. At one point in the film, she looks Jaime straight in the eyes and says, “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not going to be anything like that.” She exudes femininity and wisdom while staying in tune with her androgynous fashion sense and twenty year old foolishness. Her music taste teeters between punk bands such as Black Flag and Talking Heads; adding to her uniqueness. Abbie is able to find class in every situation, and does not let life’s hardships get the best of her.

Still, Abbie’s character would not have been able to come to life without Greta Gerwig’s charm. She first became popular by partaking in the mumblecore film movement back in the mid 2000s (low budget films with non-professional actors), and has collaborated with Drinking Buddies director Joe Swanberg, as well as the Fantastic Mr. Fox writer and significant other Noah Baumbach. In her films, Gerwig maintains underrated honesty and realism in her acting; Women is no exception. One can tell that she really believes in all characters she portrays, rather than taking a role for the sole purpose of making money.

As for Dorothea, she does her best. Even though she recruits two women to help her raise Jamie, she is understanding and knows that teenagers need to fail and make mistakes in order to grow. She rarely gets frustrated, and allows her son to make his own decisions. However, she struggles with understanding her own emotions and what she wants in her life. She is overly sensitive, and gets upset when someone points out any of her flaws or an area of her life that she could work on. Also, she’s iffy with the concepts of second wave feminism that Abbie swears by. At one point in the film, Abbie and Julie begin to discuss menstruation and virginity at a dinner party. It is obvious in this moment that Dorothea approves of certain feminist beliefs and open discussions, but not all of them. Throughout the film, depression-era born Dorothea focuses on self-discovery and the changing world in the latter part of the 20th century.These three characters go about their lives in the film and learn from each other. Along with this, themes of second-wave feminism are a prominent throughout. This movement first began in the mid 1960s, and was substantially different from first wave feminism. It transitioned from topics like voting and democratic rights, onto subjects concerning: a woman’s say in her reproductive rights, sexuality, family responsibility, and violence against women. Abbie ensures that Jamie knows as much as he wants about this movement, and equips him with reading materials that will prepare him for his future; Susan Sontag’s and the anthology edited by Robin Morgan become staples which shape how Jamie starts to view the world.

These three characters go about their lives in the film and learn from each other. Along with this, themes of second-wave feminism are a prominent throughout. This movement first began in the mid 1960s, and was substantially different from first wave feminism. It transitioned from topics like voting and democratic rights, onto subjects concerning: a woman’s say in her reproductive rights, sexuality, family responsibility, and violence against women. Abbie ensures that Jamie knows as much as he wants about this movement, and equips him with reading materials that will prepare him for his future; Susan Sontag’s Politics of Orgasm and the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful edited by Robin Morgan become staples which shape how Jamie starts to view the world.

Mike Mills has a special knack for being able to create an atmosphere that is inviting and familiar. He can create a world without shoving it in viewers’ faces; rather than making viewers feel as if they are only watching the film, it is as if they are there. After the credits started rolling, I began to cry. I wanted to go back to the 1970s and live my life with the characters Mills created, until I realized I could not go back because I wasn’t even conceived until 1999. That is what is so wonderful about Women; Mills is able to create – not just a film – but a world. Through Mills’ 20th Century Women, I have learned to appreciate all the unconventional, unapologetic, delicate, and charming moments that life has to offer. Rather than searching for experiences that will enrich my life, I have to take time to value the beauty in the moments I already have. The joy is there; I just have to decide whether or not I choose to look.

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Review: 20th Century Women