20th Century Women

Coming of Age -
Family -
They’re beautiful & ridiculous; they’re 20th century women
Mike Mills
Mike Mills
Annette Bening,
Elle Fanning,
Greta Gerwig,
Billy Crudup,
Lucas Jade Zumann
Run time
Distribution Date
Dec 28, 2016

20th Century Women opens with a flaming car. It’s kind of a great metaphor for the characters, and really how life in general seems to work.

One minute you’re putting your car in park to run into the grocery store. The next minute, your car is casually on fire. So the question of life becomes, how do you face the aftermath? If you’re Dorothea, you speak a few words of fondness over the old car to your son and then invite the fire chief to join your birthday party that evening to say thanks for all his help.

“She grew up during the depression,” Jamie, Dorothea’s son, likes to say about her - often to explain her idiosyncrasies.

Isn’t it funny how our upbringing can shape everything about the way we tackle life’s problems? 20th Century Women takes a playful step away from a truly historical era to examine it through the lens of three very different women, and the impact they make on a young boy growing up without a father in the late 1970’s.

Can this boy find adulthood and normalcy without a male role model? they wonder. What does it really mean to be a man...or a woman...or a human, for that matter? 

Everybody told Dorothea (Annette BeningBeing Julia, American Beauty) she was “too old to be a mother” when she had her son Jamie (Lucas Jade ZumannThrill Ride) at age 40. This jumped out at me right away, since that’s how old my own mother was when she had me. There’s something unique about being raised by a mother who’s a full two generations older. In my own life, I’ve experienced that it mean a little more calmness, a little less confusion. But in this movie, which is in many ways a coming-of-age story for Jamie, the years chasm. It’s hard for him to relate to this person whose life experience is so far removed from his own.

To compensate for their lack of closeness as Jamie reaches adolescence, Dorothea enlists her tenant Abbie (Greta GerwigFrances Ha) and her son’s best friend Julie (Elle FanningMaleficent) to keep an eye on Jamie and help him vault into adulthood.

Abbie, in her mid-twenties, decides to take Jamie as a confidant of sorts. She talks to him about anything that pops into her head, gives him feminist essays to read, and even takes him along to a hard-hitting doctor’s appointment.

Julie is seventeen, a small but meaningful few years older than 14-year-old Jamie. Their relationship is complicated by her insistence that they remain platonic friends, even as she becomes sexually active with other boys.

At the center of it all is still Dorothea bewildered by the antics of the young people around her, mostly peaceful in her own convictions, pretty lonely, and struggling to maintain matriarchal control in a decade where there are so many ways for young people to grab at freedom.

It’s really beautiful to get to know each character, as this film’s strength lies in their relationships and moments of togetherness.

The thing that strikes me the most, is who I found myself identifying with, and what that can tell me about history, culture, and my own assumptions. As a young woman in my mid-twenties, I naturally found it easy to relate to Abbie a lot of the time. But interestingly, Abbie was born in 1955, the same year my dad was born. And I have to be real - I find it really hard to relate to my dad (or even get along with him) an increasing amount. Was my dad like Abbie at all, when he was my age? Do our differences grow the older he gets? Or is the widening gap have more to do with geography and gender? (After all, he grew up in South Carolina, not California.)

We’re all such funny combinations of family, society, genes, and influence. What did it mean to be born, to grow up in, to die in, the 20th century? Well, it meant a lot of things. It was a long century, full of poverty and wealth, war and peace, drugs, cigarettes, sex, and changing gender norms. It’s a century we’ll see more and more clearly, the farther away we get.

Women in the 20th century looked like so many things as well. I wonder, how will we have grown and learned from them by the time we reach the end of the 21st century?

About the Contributor

Debbie is the Communications and Engagement Lead for Narrative Muse and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She loves movies, creativity, advocating for kindness, excellent takeout, yoga, GIFs, getting rush tickets for Broadway shows, reading on the Subway, and working in her community garden.