"Me and my mom, we were pals, we were partners. I was like her husband. We were deeply interwoven. At one point in time, we were the same body, like we can’t be any closer."
- Mike Mills on 20th Century Women
Meandering plots often make for good storytelling. Yet sometimes that storyline is eclipsed by the desire to create a mood that robs the viewer of the satisfaction we come to expect of movies, namely the curious unfolding of "what happens next." Mills is the first to admit that 20th Century Women lacks traditional plot structure "because plots are often kind of distracting and a contrivance." He sees the movie as "a meditation and a portrait" of the five characters who make up his film. 20th Century Women is not an exploration of all 20th century women, but rather the director's own interest in making sense of his mother and their complicated relationship. By using his mother as the springboard to the broader issue of identity, Mills concludes that we are shaped by our individual psychologies, as well as the culure within which our psychologies are placed.
It can be argued that what 20th Century Women lacks in traditional plot is made up for by the complexity of it's rich and colorful characters. The story's focus on Annette Bening as a single mother caught between the ideologies of liberalism and tradition provides a refreshing alternative to the typical form of memoir that Mills had hoped to avoid. Here we are not only told about his mother, but shown as well. He is adept at portraying Dorothea's idiosyncrasies and contradictions, as well as recreating the social and political mood of the 1970's. We witness the birth of punk rock and see Jimmy Carter on TV simultaneously lamenting and predicting the growth of the 'me' generation. The movie shows clips of Carter giving his famous "Crisis of Confidence" speech. Judy Blume is part of the literary landscape along with Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, and most notably the groundbreaking book Our Bodies, Ourselves. How to satisfy a woman is part of the film's explicit dialogue, as well as one of the overarching themes of the film. But how to raise a man is the question Dorothea struggles with, and one she poses to the women who board in her home. These women are enlisted by Dorothea to help raise her son. One of these women is a troubled and promiscious girl/adoleslcent who is struggling with her own sense of identity and a troubled relationship with her mother. Abbie, the other woman enlisted for the job, lives in Dorothea's house, is a cervical cancer survivor, and an avid punk rock wannabee with dyed red and purple hair. Abbie is also a photographer who is constantly aiming the camera at her subjects. This attempt to capture history seems to mirror and highlight the director's own attempt to capture his childhood, a childhood however that cannot be pinned down, which flees once the image is taken. Can an image capture history or does the past always remain out of our grasp? Raising a 20th Century man requires the qualities of being sensitive, yet masculine. It requires an awareness of how to sexually satisfy your partner, while not denying your own needs. Our Bodies, Ourselves is pivotal in exposing the dichotomies Dorothea faces in raising her son, while simultaneously waging these battles in her own psyche. Yet, deeper than how to satisfy a woman and how to raise a man appears to be Mike Mills' own desire to simply understand and make his own mother happy.
Dorothea's story is told through the use of objects, events, and other people. It oscillates between the present while foreshadowing the future. Old news reels and outdated album covers brings us back to a time when it was cool to chain smoke Salem cigarettes. Mills has succeeded in evoking the mood of an era, one he wants us to savor and enjoy. The desire to entertain, however, falls short as the film rambles without direction, where the end is foretold in the beginning giving the film a nostalgic and sentimental feeling of gloom. There are no surprises here, no incentive to watch as the plot unfolds because there is no plot, merely "portraits of life" in media res. Some would say that makes for good film making, other's might argue that it is long and tedious which is how I felt when I left the theater.