It’s easy to ignore history; not so much for mass culture. Where the first always sits, waiting, for us to look inside and find the errors and jubilations of today re-cast and slightly abstracted into dated sources and voids of information, the latter is a desperate lover of our attention, always more sophisticated than we are at figuring out the simplest versions we know of ourselves. What we need, from artists, from friends, from everything we look at, is a way to clear the way, to cut out the noise, to see things revealed, to be more than appealed to — to connected to, if we believe in one, our souls, to speak with our innermost thoughts. In 20th Century Women, Dorothea (Annette Bening, alternately disoriented and clairvoyant but always planted firmly in place, as one imagines an architectural draftsperson must be), like her director, Mike Mills, wants to do this for the person before her, her son (Jamie, absorbing and listening and never loud).
Mills, a veteran from the world of advertising (who believes narrative films are his true calling), has been quick to nakedly call this, like his previous film Beginners, a portrait of a parent: a summoning of his mother to speak about and with and elevate out of memory and into remembered life. But Mills doesn’t clear everything away from the world except for this single relationship; neither does Dorothea want to be her son’s whole world. What she does is enlist two women, closer to Jamie in age, to be spy parents, ready to drop in and simply be present, ready to influence a rapidly growing mind. Dorothea can’t always be there, especially at this point in adolescence, when the strongest desire might be to push everything familiar away, and so this seems to her to be the best she can do. In a brief moment of just-off-screen dialogue, the question is debated: is it harder to grow up into a man or a woman? What Dorothea concludes, evidently, is that it is hard to be a good person when the strongest influences are young men of a contemporary age — and so she chooses to recede, in a very strong way, and the film finds its structure as a cycle of voices — Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig) treat him at times as a blank slate and others as a close singular confidante, and Dorothea, present as an omniscient narrator (or, perhaps, a slightly outside-of-time one), attains some of the qualities of a ghost, perpetually working on home renovations that never seem to progress, remaining consistent in her routines and thoughts while everyone else’s accelerates.
Mills literalizes this feeling, playing some memories in fast-forward (the whole action, not the world blurring around an alienated character). This isn’t something new — Mills was playing back meandering timelapses as far back as his documentary about newspaper delivery boys in suburban Minnesota over a decade ago — but here he has found a more ambiguous subject. The effect reveals, in its slow pans, how, though many films may suggest otherwise, so much of daily life is rooted in locations, the same ones, lived in for long stretches at a time — a conversation that lasts an hour, a kitchen chore that lasts an evening, the repeated processes and motions that, subjectively, can feel like wasted time but contain in them the place where life unfolds. Mills’ film is far too energetic to be called simply mundane, but there’s a consciousness working here that wants to play with time to the same degree, though with far different ends, as Richard Linklater’s slowly sprawling narratives.
“I decided, I’m helping capitalism look benign, so I bailed from [doing advertising],” Mills said in a recent interview for a lengthy New Yorker profile. “And then I missed directing, and I needed money. Now I try to do two ads a year, so I can earn the hundred and fifty thousand dollars I need to pay for my life. The politics of doing them remains unresolved.” Mills may not have worked this out, but the work he’s practiced show in 20th Century Women’s weakest strategies. Mills returns to the stock-footage montage (with voiceover) used to suggest the broad swath of time-specific history the speaker surely would have known (presidents, actors, and other monuments, mostly), as if the time-capsule narration needed to be understood by even an alien. When Mills chooses the music and moments his characters actually encounter in the normal flow of the movie, there is a careful, loving specificity (the Talking Heads and Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence”), but the generic snapshots, accompanied by bewondered music Apple could loop behind any of its ads, too often resemble the narrowly-focused parade of entertainment news headlines compiled at the back of yearbooks (the rainbow-glow-blur effect applied to multiple transition scenes would fit there as well). If the rest of the film weren’t so free of nostalgia (when it does appear, it is defamiliarized, as in Abbie’s photography, or the cars and clothes that show a clarity of purpose: the late ‘70s did not only contain the creations of the decade), it’d be easy to see, in Mills’ affection for identifying people and ideas by their generation, generations being the ready stand-bys of magazine analysts and PR scribes, who need to concentrate people into demographics, all the better to purchase as.
It may be that Mills’ tendencies as an advertiser have been interrupted by his call to be introspective — or by much needed critiques. Miranda July, Mills’ partner, called an early draft “making your movie about women really about a man.” The son is still at the centre, but, as he is handed feminist texts, as he is made to witness the messiness of life’s interruptions, there is the sense that Mills is trying to dig deep, to figure out how a kind, thoughtful person might be formed. It isn’t in the cultural artifacts alone — Dorothea rejects one of his readings, in a way that asks a person to look beyond texts, and in one of Julie’s many intimate, open discussions (they sleep together without sleeping together; she sees him as a friend and an opportunity to try out her own versions of her mother’s therapeutic practices), Jamie is outed as a boring, predictably horny teen in want of control: “You are exactly like the other guys.” 20th Century Women, conflict absent (this is a freeing impulse), is a film formed out of the impulse to be different, a difference formed in opposition to the instinct that commands far too much: to be unthinking, unchallenging, and accepting of nothing that isn’t found one generation away.