20th Century Women: Tell Me How to Feel, by Scott Nye
There’s something quietly radical nibbling at the edges of Mike Mills’ new film 20th Century Women that never successfully consumes it. Proposed as an earnest character piece about a teenage boy’s coming of age in 1979 and the women who help get him there, it’s buried in theme. Rather than let personalities and themes be revealed through action and dialogue about other topics, characters will just come out and say things like, “I think history’s been tough on men. They can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next.” Or he’ll have one character describe another in voiceover with the implication that this is not just their view of that person, but an objective summation – “He started looking like them, talking like them, but they made him feel old and uneducated and poor.”
This “novelization” of the screen is nothing particularly new. Omniscient narrators usually allow for these sorts of remarks, often better confined to the character notes a director might send their actors, but occasionally revelatory and quite beautiful onscreen. This separation between character and spectator allows the audience to still approach them as limited human beings. We’ve every reason to see the characters in 20th Century Women this way. Jaime (Lucas Jade Zumann) may be a bit more worldly than the average fourteen-year-old, but this is only through living in a house with his fairly-open-minded mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her boarders, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). He’s also getting a good deal of input from his slightly-senior friend, and frequent overnight guest, Julie (Elle Fanning).
But they’re all a bit of a mess. Dorothea had Jaime late in life, and is a bit exhausted by life now that she’s in her mid-fifties right as he’s entering adolescence. Abbie is recovering from cervical cancer, and is estranged from her mother. William hasn’t a station in life, nor the ambition to seek one. Julie’s mother is a teen therapist who treats her more as a subject than a daughter. Jaime loves her of course, but a couple years when you’re a teenager are a permanent barrier.
The arc of the film revolves around Dorothea’s declaration to Abbie and Julie that she’s struggling to raise Jaime on her own and needs their help. This reduces the women to whatever influence they have over his life. Not entirely, of course – fear not, the film passes the Bechdel test – but inevitably, sooner or later, they’re going to have to talk about Jaime. It often makes for an awkward narrative intrusion. Many scenes are neither purely for their own pleasure, nor actively advance a plot. The film’s stuck in a limbo between narrative drive, hangout film, and thesis on a turning point in American social history.
20th Century Women should be quite radical for allowing its characters near-telepathic insights, but it comes across a bit trite. When Dorothea speculates about the future by way of skateboard tricks, it’s hard to see that as any extension of her. It feels more like something Mills wanted to observe, and somehow still used the least-natural vessel for it. When Jaime summarizes Julie with cutting, poignant observations, it suggests he understands way more about her than he does when he’s actually speaking to her.
This has a resonant side – we often can’t express the empathy we feel – but Mills never reconciles them. At no point is thought put into conflict with action. Nor is the existence of this structure pushed beyond its limits. When one watches something truly audacious, there is the sense that its initial daring is just the beginning, that it will continually upend even the unusual expectations it creates. Whatever aesthetic or narrative boundaries 20th Century Women intends to push are reached within minutes and repeated. This undermines the cast’s thoughtful work (Gerwig and Crudup are especially exceptional, fully developed and electric characters with whom I ached to spend more time), assuring the audience of how we’re supposed to see them instead of letting them live wildly. The coming decades will do plenty to tame these people; no need for Mills to do the same.