Who inhabits the present? That’s a question I often ask myself. Is it the oldest people at any one moment, who can most contextualise the present in terms of the past? Or is the youngest people at any one moment, who are so enmeshed in the present that they can’t appreciate it on anything but its own terms? Or is it people who live somewhere in between, aware of the past but still invested in the future? All those questions are raised in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, an anti-period piece set in 1979 in Santa Barbara, California. Based loosely on Mills’ own childhood, the screenplay revolves around a radically cross-generational and multifarious collective of people occupying a house owned by Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), who is also based loosely on Mills’ own mother.
Within this house, which is itself being continuously renovated, repainted and repaired, we’re presented with a series of characters that seem to defy any kind of direct continuity between past and present, as well as the kinds of conventional nuclear family narratives that seem to ensure the continuity between past and present in much American cinema. At the heart of it is Dorothea, who is not only a single mother, but an older single mother (she is in her late 50s), who had her only son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) relatively late in life. In lieu of a more regular family, she has taken on a pair of lodgers, William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig). On the one hand, William is a middle-aged drifter who originally lived on a hippie commune, only to return to regular society after the relationship that took him there fell flat. On the other hand, Abbie is a young punk acolyte with an “incompetent cervix” that was itself caused by a fertility drug that her own mother took after multiple miscarriages. To make matters worse, when Abbie’s mother finds out the cause of her daughter’s potential infertility, she distances herself from her – whether in shame, guilt or humiliation is unclear – leaving Abbie to fall back upon Dorothea as a surrogate mother.
On top of that, Dorothea’s house is also a kind of surrogate home for Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend, who comes over to sleep in his bed every night, climbing up to his window through the construction scaffolding, but who also insists on maintaining a Platonic relationship with Jamie despite being fairly free with her affections within their wider circle of friends and acquaintances. Finally, above and beyond those key characters, the house thrives with a wider and more expansive sense of life, both from Dorothea’s dinner parties, which rotate us through a cross-section of characters we never really get to know and are never able to completely locate in terms of their background and context, and from Dorothea’s wider gathering, during which the connection between the house and the surrounding community becomes utterly porous. In the incredible opening sequence, Dorothea and Jamie emerge from the local shopping centre to discover that their car is on fire, and Dorothea repays the firemen by inviting them to all come to her home for a birthday celebration that night. At first, it feels as if these firemen might become characters in their own right, or at least charismatic cameos, but that never quite comes to pass, as they are instead simply folded into the collective spirit and communal hum that seems to suffuse Dorothea’s house even when it is empty and quiet.
As that all might suggest, then, 20th Century Women thrives on evocative fragments, most of which are as elliptical and elusive as the most memorable short stories. In fact, the house itself is much like a collection or compendium of short stories, none of which ever reaches a conclusive or climactic ending, suffusing every scene with a restless, peripatetic energy, even as the characters seem to be trapped in a slump of endless down time. So much of the film takes place during these down times that it feels as if Mills is elaborating something like down space, pockets in which competing versions of the present rub up against each other when characters have nothing in particular to focus upon or occupy them. Within that environment, the plot, such as it is revolves around Dorothea realising that she needs to find a way to teach her son to be a man in the absence of any stable paternal continuity (we never hear a single word of her ex-husband), and then enlisting Abbie to help her with the task. In a kind of spiritual companion piece to The Kids Are Alright, Dorothea and Abbie work together – sometimes harmoniously, sometimes fractiously – to stitch together a version of the past, present and future that doesn’t necessarily depend upon male surveillance and control (“Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” “No…I don’t think so”), building an improvised future out of whatever fragments of wisdom and insight they can muster.
That disruption of patriarchal historical continuity blooms into a series of impressionistic montage sequences as the film proceeds, gathering up footage from across the twentieth century and scoring it to a vast array of musical cues. By the end of the film, this will segue into actual incorporation of footage from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, but for the most part Mills tends to intercut the emergent punk scene with early twentieth century music, as if fusing the most futuristic sounds that the youngest characters can foresee with the most distantly nostalgic sounds that the oldest characters can recall. As might be expected, that creates some quite startling and unexpected historical connections – it’s strange, for example, to think of the 1970s as a time when the Great Depression is still a part of living memory, and yet it’s a constant point of reference for Dorothea in terms of the provisional living arrangements she has erected around herself: “Back then, the whole neighborhood raised the kids.” While “As Time Goes By” – and Casablanca more generally – might be a constant point of reference, then, these musical citations never exactly feel “historical,” but are simply a part of the 70s in the same way that, say, Talking Heads are also a part of the 70s.
In other words, 20th Century Women strives to evoke the present moment of the 70s before it congeals into the past, let alone into a distinctive period, era or “style.” As a result, this not the 70s as the beginning of the punk era, or as the declining years of the pre-war generation, but as an experience that is inhabited by different people in utterly incommensurate ways. Some characters have little sense of the future, whereas others have little sense of the past, and yet those shared oblivions are both crucial in giving the present moment its distinctive atmosphere and shape. Far from a period being defined by its continuities, then, Mills suggests that what produces historical zeitgeists is everything that remains incommunicable between one generation and the next – or between all the generations operating in a single moment – with none of his characters ever feeling completely comprehensible to any of the others in any definitive or enduring way.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the relationship between Dorothea and Jamie, since while he’s just starting to explore the world as a nascent punk devotee, she already feels invisible by the later 70s as an older single women: “Sensually and socially obsolete, I am supposed to fulfil my small functions and vanish.” Their experiences, in particular, feel utterly incompatible – “You get to see him out in the world as a person…I never will” – with the result that this is emphatically not a film about a hip mother who “gets” her son. Instead, we have a mother who admits that she can never fully “get” him but also can’t quite bear to accept that fact, imbuing Bening’s performance with a wonderful dynamism and melancholy courage. In one amazing scene, she has a go at dancing to Black Flag, the Raincoats and a variety of other punk and post-punk bands, trying her hardest to understand her son while also acknowledging, somewhere, that there are limits she can’t traverse. In an era in which historical recreation and pastiche is so dominant, there’s something bracing about these limits, which often reminded me – in an odd way – of the third season of Twin Peaks, and its utter refusal to ever settle into a seamless continuum between present and past.
That all culminates with a series of tremulous monologues that emerge out of the montage sequences, and which fuse future and past into the breathless fragility of the present moment: “It’s 1979. I’m 55 years old. They don’t know that this is the end of punk. It’s impossible to even imagine HIV.” As a teacher, I often find myself wondering what it would be like to work at the other end of the spectrum, in a field like aged care, and to realise that the oldest people in our society are, in some sense, as much a part of the present moment as the very youngest people in our society. In some ways, that’s an almost inconceivable situation – as inconceivable as working in teaching and aged care at once – and yet that’s what these beautiful monologues manage to achieve, offering up a reparative vision of history in which even the most apparently marginal people are a part of the present moment, even if they are written out of it almost as soon as the present moment has passed.
In that sense, Mills’ project is to catch the sense of the present before it has passed, which gives 20th Century Women quite an unusual sense of space and physical orientation. While the film’s mise-en-scenes aren’t exactly crowded or cluttered, the sense of different timeframes jostling up and negotiating with each other often makes it seem as if an entire neighborhood drama – or even a tenement drama – is playing out across the down space of Dorothea’s apartment. At one point, all the main characters find themselves lying in the main bed, and that captures the feeling of the film as a whole, which never really feels like a historical drama or a period drama, just because the sense of historical time is so different depending upon which character we are following. If anything, 20th Century Women feels like a film about the present, not simply in terms of the characters and their concerns, but in terms of its enduring question of how the present might look from the perspective of the future – once it has become the past – a question that seems to define the apocalyptic urgency of our present political, economic and environmental moment.
Instead of rediscovering the past in the present, then, Mills imbues the past with a “presentness” that totally disarms even the most residual nostalgia, to the point where my experience of the film was more about longing for nostalgia as an anchoring experience rather than experiencing nostalgia itself. Insofar the film is a period drama, however, it plays as a period drama about the last hundred and twenty years, pivoting the entire twentieth century around this one point as if to caution against any periodisation that is too narrow, focused or concentrated in its scope. Yet unlike other nostalgia pieces that privilege the late 70s – the birth of punk, the birth of digital technology, the last hurrah of analog cinema – Mills refuses to extricate this most fetishised of periods to any kind of splendid isolation, embedding it in the Great Depression, Casablanca and distant memories of tenement housing as much as in any reprieve from the present. In other words, Mills reminds us that every period is preoccupied by the past, and in some sense constituted by the past as its lost object, displacing any comforting sense that a return to the 70s could somehow complete or consummate everything that seems to be lacking in the present.
The result is an unusual kind of ensemble drama, in which a series of diffuse narrative threads spanning the century just happen to momentarily coalesce at this particular point in history. As much as 20th Century Women might feel set in the present, then, it can also seem like a version of the twentieth century from an even more remote future, as the characters flit in and out of Mills’ impressionistic historical texture. When Dorothea’s voiceovers look forward to 1999 – the year of her death – the late 90s feel much more remote than our own present day, as if Mills were keen remind us how distant from the last century we already are, despite the plethora of nostalgic recreations that seem to render it more available to those of us who still possess it within living memory.
Similarly, by the time we reach the end of the film, it doesn’t exactly feel as if time has passed so much as refracted through the characters, producing a disarray that turns out to be unexpectedly fertile and fecund. Only by truly embracing the present moment in all its dissonance do the characters discover a future – or at least more present moments – with Abbie eventually able to have children and Dorothea finding solace in a lover late in life. As we move towards this point, Mills distorts more and more of his montage sequences through a rainbow filter, until every shared experience seems to bleed out into a spectrum of possibilities and perspectives that exceeds every character and speaks to their common momentum. After all, the one thing uniting these characters is their sense that time is something to be contended with, something that eludes conscious control – and that in itself makes 20th Century Women strangely and beautifully original for our particular historical moment, so keen to displace its own presentness onto periodised fantasies of the past.