Michelle reviews Mike Mills semi-autobiographical film 20th Century Women and parallels her own experiences to the film.



20th Century Women is a story of a fifteen year old, Jamie, who lives in Santa Barbara in 1979. The film centers on his relationship with his mother, and their dynamic as he grows up and the world around them changes. Now that Oscars nominations are out, I felt it was appropriate to write my review of this film. I think Annette Bening was snubbed big time in not receiving a nomination for her role as Dorothea (Congratulations to Mike Mills for his nod for Best Original Screenplay.) There is so much to say about 20th Century Women, but I won’t get carried away. This film brings to life a very real narrative and experience that can be shared between the film’s protagonist, Jamie, and a variety of audience members. Personally, I am one of those members who left the theater with a resonating feeling of appreciation and a sense that Mike Mills understood my childhood. Granted I am a 25 year old woman who experienced the trials of puberty and teen angst in the early 2000s, Jamie’s story felt very similar to my own.

Dorothea is a 55 year old, single mother raising a 15 year old son in 1979. It’s been just the two of them since Dorothea and Jamie’s father divorced, and their relationship is sincere, close, and very special. Although they have this bond, Dorothea can feel Jamie “slipping away” as he starts discovering life as a curious teenager. She decides to recruit three people who have become permanent fixtures in their lives. There’s William, a former hippie and handyman who is helping to restore their home in exchange for rent, Abbie, a twenty-something, feminist punk who shoots photographs for the local news but desires to make important art and redefine herself while recovering from cancer, and Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend who is two years older, a rebellious teen whose mother is a psychologist, and the object of his affection, although she only sees them as friends. Dorothea asks that they share their lives with Jamie and help “raise” him, because she feels she can no longer can connect with him on levels necessary for him to become a good man.


Each character definitively stands out in their own way and help Jamie understand who he was, who is his, and who is becoming. Through conversations, concerts, drinking and partying, art, borrowed feminist literature, stories about sex and intimacy, and more, Jamie realizes that his relationship with his mother was enough all along and that although he appreciated the recruitment of their friends, it’s sharing these things between the two of them that would have been more than enough. This film really resonated with me because it reminded me of my relationship with my mother. Although not as old as Dorothea when she had me, my mother was older than most women having children. My mother was born in 1958 and was raised in a relatively traditional, Catholic household which significantly structured the ideals and beliefs my mother had and shared with my brother and I. As I was growing up, I always explored and ventured into new interests, cliques, hobbies, etc. and I know that the more progressive I became, the harder it was for my mother to connect. Much like Dorothea, my mother rarely shared her feelings or strong affection towards us, but never discounted her love for her children. I saw a change in my mother when my parents divorced, one similar to the change depicted in Dorothea. What I loved most about 20th Century Women is that while I watched the various scenes, I started to feel the emotions I felt when I was that age. It was all very organic and cathartic in a sense to watch Jamie go through everything. But it isn’t just Jamie’s life that pulls me in through similarities. I found bits of myself and my friends in Abbie, Julie, and William. That’s the beauty in the characters Mike Mills has written. They are real people, even if they are simply based on someone he knew. They’re real, the problems they have are real, their feelings are real, and because of all of this, you don’t just view their stories, you experience them. That is a very special thing to share as a spectator. I’ll reference a song from the feature soundtrack that explains how I felt while watching such a similar life experience on screen. In the song “Why Can’t I Touch It?” by Buzzcocks, the lyrics heard describe the overwhelming feeling and sensation that something is real as it triggers multiple senses, but it can’t tangibly be touched.

“Well it seems so real I can see it, and it seems so real I can feel it, and it seems so real I can taste it, and it seems so real I can hear it. So why can’t I touch it?”

There’s something powerful in Mills screenplay and how it comes together in the shots of the film. An excellent example of the conversation between both comes in the driving scenes of the film. The film speeds up and the colors blend like a Polaroid or developing film and you realize that it’s a parallel to how quickly life goes. There are incredible pop culture references within 20th Century Women, from band tees Jamie and Abbie wear, skateboarding, the Crisis of Confidence speech from Jimmy Carter, the INCREDIBLE soundtrack that features early punk and new wave, jazz, etc., and the recap of our history (the film’s future) from the perspectives of an older Dorothea. A fantastic representation of feminisim, and even better examples of strong, independent women who are not alike, are extremely complex, and define themselves with a multitude of characteristics. I appreciated the introduction of Abbie’s cervical cancer, the cause of it, and the struggles she has in dealing with the aftermath (biologically, sexual confidence, etc). Aesthetically pleasing, the film truly captures the period, yet never makes it feel foreign or out of reach for the audience.


I can’t recommend this film enough. Strong performances, a beautiful narrative filled with great dialogue and beautiful humor, there’s love and loss and heartbreak, friendship and family and the line that is often blurred between the two, incredible discussions of feminism, sexuality, intimacy, and society, and a very real story that I believe can be accessible to every member of the audience. If anything, this film helped me understand more the relationship between myself and my mother and allowed me to grasp the changes in our dynamic, the lessons I’ve learned from her, and helped me establish a great deal of appreciation for her, because although she never shared much with us, I know she was probably going through her own stuff but kept her focus on her children. There’s a line towards the end of the film from an older Jamie that talks about how he’ll never be able to explain his mother to his son in an effort to help his children understand their grandmother who has since passed, and in that moment, I realized that we all have stories and legacies we leave behind, but there will always be a part of us that seems reserved and unknown. I’ll leave you with this: I was profoundly moved by 20th Century Women, and I am happy I saw it during the weekend a portion of the ticket sales were going to Planned Parenthood as a donation. I left the theater inspired, enlightened, moved, and relieved that the uncertainties of my own youth and the questions I had growing up, could be shared and answered through a film. Please support this film and truly engage with it.

Michelle’s Rating: 8/10