20th Century Women: Transcending Nostalgia

20th Century Women & Film Narrative

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.

A Nostalgic Time

Like many other films going back in time, there are plentiful elements of the past that may impart a sense of nostalgia to the viewer in 20th Century Women. Nostalgia as a concept is rooted in a longing for a past that is characterized by positive associations. Films that capitalize on nostalgia frame history in an extremely adoring way, always positioning it as a place to return to, omitting the aspects that break the facade of the “good ol’ days.” In 20th Century Women—instead of falling into the trap of nostalgia and turning the setting of 1979 Santa Barbara into a prominent character—the setting serves the purpose of inciting change within the main cast. At first glance, the film could be interpreted as being drenched in nostalgia.

From The Talking Heads music, the vintage clothes and cars, and the cutaways to period-accurate media and speeches, the time the characters are living in is thoroughly established as being in the past. None of this is in service of creating a longing for the past though. Instead, it is distinctly positioned in a way where we are understanding it from the perspective of the 21st century. This creates excitement for the future as the aesthetics of the film create a place for the characters to develop, discovering who they desire to be, or at least the selves that they wish to escape from. Jamie’s angst turns into conflict as he lusts after Julie while embracing the progressive feminism that Abbie shows to him. Julie uses sex as a tool for empowerment while still being scared to reveal her personal feelings to anyone other than Jamie. Because of her mother’s fertility drug, Abbie was stripped of reproductive autonomy and acts out against those around her. William is afraid of intimacy and commitment after his wife left him. Dorothea wants the best for her son and those around her but this distracts from the need to help herself. All of these people need help and what holds them back is their attachment to the world around them. Each one is scared of disrupting the flow and challenging their situation, fearing they may be hurt. As a result, they stagnate until they are confronted with the possibility of growth.

How are the Characters are Effected?

Each character’s respective endings reinforce the point that 1979 is a significant yet transient moment for all of these characters. 20th Century Women ends with little vignettes of each character in the future as they describe how they evolved past their 1979 selves: Julie goes to NYU and moves to Paris with a classmate she fell in love with; Abbie has two children against her doctor’s diagnosis; William opens a pottery store in Arizona; Dorothea meets and stays with a man until her death from cancer in 1999; and after Dorothea’s death, Jamie marries and has a son. The most significant moments in everyone’s lives were either before or after the events of 20th Century Women, but it does not mean that events in the film were any less formative and special for each character. Rather, including the before and after for each character highlights the need to look beyond one moment in time. I stated that 20th Century Women is able to transcend nostalgia, but a more accurate way of analyzing the film would be that it recognizes the best way to look toward the past, particularly in a favorable way, is from the perspective of today. We are looking at it with no desire to return, just merely looking at it fondly and returning to our lives in the 21st century.

The past can be beautiful and of great performance, but without proper perspective regarding where it came from and where it is going, we are romanticizing it and taking it out of time. We are glamorizing it as if it was not a part of our time and history, turning it into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.