By Alex Coburn, Staff Writer
“Strong female characters” is a phrase that generates a lot of buzz in the film industry, and for good reason. In today’s world, girls are constantly being asked: Is being a woman about the pictures they see in magazines? Is it about coming so close, but not close enough, to having a first female president? Many films have tried and often failed to address the complexities of being a woman. Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women, however, does not. With its punchy, modern editing, clever writing and endearing storyline, 20th Century Women provides not only well-rounded “strong female characters” but also a nostalgic memoir about what it was like to be a woman in the late ‘70s.
20th Century Women is all about how people interact with and shape each other. Dorothea (Annette Bening), who is struggling to raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone, enlists the help of her boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s older friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to teach him how to be a good man. The film is crafted as a series of moments rather than a linear storyline, so the editing is crucial. It’s not surprising that Mills has a history in graphic design, because the editing is not only visually pleasing and modern but also helps weave together the anecdotes into a cohesive story. His use of fast motion is especially fascinating, as it helps demonstrate how fast life moves when you’re living in a time period of change.
Another feature that really helped to give the film a nostalgic, of-the-time feel was its use of historical photographs and footage. When describing each of the character’s back stories, still photographs were used to give context. For example, when Dorothea is describing growing up in the post-Depression years, they show photographs from that time period. So while the film is fictional, it feels like something universal to the women that grew up in those times. There were also other cultural markers; for example, Julie’s mantras from Judy Blume books or Abbie’s obsession with the punk culture feud between Talking Heads and Black Flag fans.
But what really sold the film was the writing. It is definitely deserving of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. Not only were the female characters endearing and multifaceted, but the male characters had genuine, respectful, complicated relationships with them that felt true to life. While the film is about a lot of things—from nostalgia for the ‘70s to finding happiness—it really focuses on how women and men at the time navigated the second wave of feminism.
The writing could easily have been pedantic and too historical drama-esque to be subversive, but Mills shows feminism on the homefront rather than placing it in a larger context. A scene that stands out as particularly endearing and effective was the one in which, after reading Our Bodies Ourselves, Jamie gets in a fight with a boy at the skate park because he doesn’t know about clitoral stimulation. Showcasing how women teach a young boy to be a good man and a feminist isn’t easy, but Mills’ writing does it in a way that is endearing without being sappy or preachy.
While 20th Century Women isn’t a sweeping, emotional historical drama about the progress of feminism, it is a catalogue of moments in the lives of three women growing up in a pivotal time for feminism. Rather than focusing on the big picture, Mills gives us little vignettes of incredibly “strong female characters” and how their lessons and actions teach a teenage boy how to be a better man. And even though it’s called 20th Century Women, it’s still beautifully relevant to what’s happening today.