At one point in Mike Mills’ Academy Award nominated movie “20th Century Women,” one of its characters, Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), takes polaroids of all the objects she owns (which consists of bras, underwear, lipstick, shoes, birth control pills and a photograph of a photograph of her mother) as an attempt to capture a self portrait of herself.
It doesn’t quite capture the human who owns them, but these snapshots, like Mills’ film, try to capture the fleeting self-realization of a person at a moment in time.
Abbie’s artwork is described as “really beautiful” and “a little bit sad” — adjectives that also apply to what Mills has achieved with his stylized semi-autobiographical fictional film “20th Century Women.”
If the polaroids are “20th Century Women,” then Mills is Abbie — its writer and director. But whereas Abbie is trying to capture a portrait of just herself, Mills tasked himself with an even more impossible endeavor — creating a snapshot of himself and his strong, independent, witty, Depression and World War II-era, Humphrey Bogart-loving mother.
To help him, Mills recruited Annette Bening, whose fantastic as the fictionalized version of Mills’ mother, Dorothea Fields, a 55-year-old single mother in the 1970s who wanted to give her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) the world and raise him to be a good person who’s happier than she was.
To raise her kid, she recruited a village: her tenants William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie; and Jamie’s 17-year-old best friend Julie (Elle Fanning). The women loan Jamie feminist books and punk mix tapes and try to teach him how to be a man with lessons about female orgasms, how to verbally seduce an older woman, how to say “menstruation,” how to smoke and look cool, how to like and dance to the Talking Heads and how to not get beat up by guys who don’t want to listen.
Through these “20th Century Women,” Jamie learns things they don’t explicitly tell him: he learns how to listen, how to care, how to be sensitive and vulnerable and sweet and really be there — attributes women want that are not usually associated with a man.
Who Jamie becomes is what Dorothea achieves, answering Jamie’s inquisitive questions with wisdoms like “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed”; “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world”; and “Men always feel that they have to fix things for women, but they’re not doing anything. Some things just can’t be fixed.”
Dorothea is amazing just like Mills’ mother must have been. But while words and polaroids aren’t enough to fully bring someone back to life, “20th Century Women,” Mills’ retrospective love letter to his mom, is pretty close.
“20th Century Woman” was directed and written by Mike Mills. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay.