Mike Mills’ 2016 film 20th Century Women does not follow a traditional film narrative. There is a beginning and an end, but it is very evident at all points in the film that we as viewers are only seeing a small glimpse into the complex relationships and lived experiences of these characters. The film makes it evident that we are looking at these characters living in 1979 Santa Barbara, California, but this is not the only time that they exist in. Rather than hyper-focusing on the time and place, it focuses on the lives of these characters almost out of time. The setting of 1979 is made real by the characters’ histories and is informed by their respective futures as they are all intertwined with each other. This is Mike Mill’s attempt at reconstructing his childhood for viewers without succumbing to pure nostalgia. Everything in the film serves to create a self-critical love letter to the important figures in Mill’s life, emphasizing each character’s perspective and how their relationships helped them grow.
The film ostensibly follows Jamie, quickly revealing itself to be about the women in his life, their histories, and the wisdom they impart on each other. Jamie lives with his single mother Dorothea—who had him when she was 40-years-old—as well as two boarders: 24-year-old Abbie and the middle-aged handyman William who similarly shapes and is shaped by his relationships with everyone. Jamie’s older friend Julie is also a common face as she secretly stays over at the house. The holistic view of the characters’ interplay is how the film’s narrative is told to the audience. This is how the film’s setting which is so influential and present in the story, is able to be understood as a supporting element, propping up the individuality of the characters who are dependent on one another. The narrative drive connecting the story together is that Dorothea, as an older single mother, feels disconnected from Jamie, so to remedy the situation she asks Abbie and Julie to help raise him. Although it may not have ended up as she envisioned, Jamie’s closed-offishness and angst turn into an eagerness to learn and understand—coinciding with the women as well as the sensitive and bohemian William opening up as well. Each character, true to their contradictory natures, is both independent and dependent on one another. In this contradiction they reveal to us who they were, are, and are going to be, thus cementing themselves as dynamic figures that are greater than just one impression at a moment in time. They are more than the person they were in 1979.