2017-06-20 16:40:48

20th Century Women


The film is written and directed by Mike Mills and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards. In 2010, the director gained wide reputation for his semi-autobiographical film Beginners, and six years later, he comes back with his new work 20th Century Women. It tells a story about how the hero Jamie gets along with his mother in his lost and exploring period, and also records the important people appearing in his life in 1979. The time span of the film is bewildering: the calm, whisper-like voice-over goes on and on, carrying the characters into the mighty torrent of history. Standing in the positions of the director and the people in the film, we feel their experiences, and learn about how they find their selves in the perplexing life.

The director frequently inserted large numbers of image and sound montages in the narration, deliberately creating a sense of era, and therefore evoking the audience’s notice of the historical background: feminist movements and sexual revolutions flooded the US in the 1960s and 1970s. As a film paying tribute to females, 20th Century Women neither marched further on the road of feminism, nor clearly and strongly showed its intention to strive for political recognitions, but the notion on sex and gender embodied in it was inclusive and pioneering.

The director is clever at using certain tiny details to portray the characters, rendering them with enchanting and rich gloss of texture. The female protagonist Dorothea is born in the Age of Great Depression, first entering the Air Force Academy and then becoming the first woman to work in the Continental Can Company drafting room. She gives birth to her son Jamie at the age of 40, later gets divorced with her husband and starts to raise Jamie alone since then. The times and place she is born and her encounters help form Dorothea’s independent and strong personality. She has dated with many men, but all the relationships didn’t last long. Constantly in celibacy, though she understands love and is eager for love, she is reluctant to make compromise and depend on one man. In the chaotic and restless America at that time, Dorothea finds the culture unacceptable, meanwhile she has to admit that she has lagged behind the society, living in her own world without moving forward one inch.

For the 17-year-old Julie, there are two key words: rebelling and sex. Deeply affected by sex revolution, Julie enjoys sex, enjoys having physical relationships with others. You can easily see her obsession with sex, as well as her straightforward attitude towards sex. She just wants to prove one thing: sex is not shameful, but beautiful. At the same time, she often spends the night with Jamie but does not want to have sex with him, merely to seek console and tolerance from him. Probably in Julie’s world, only her body belongs to herself; through manipulating her own body and acquiring sex, she could accomplish her cognition of herself in the disorienting life and her pursuit for freedom other than sex.

Another person in the film Abbie, in my view, is a romanticist. Punk is just a tool for Abbie to go after freedom. For example, Abbie requests for making up a story to complete the sexual behavior with William. During the process, Abbie equally takes the dominant place; without the relationship between oppressing and being oppressed, the desires of both sexes reach a balance to some extent. Born with cervical cancer and treated for infertile, the feminist Abbie doesn’t cease to chase her freedom, no matter in terms of sexuality or spirits.

Behind the feminism ideology of the film, we see the confusion of the three female roles in that era, and their continuous wandering in lost and discovery. Based on their own perceptions, they externalize feminism, such as Abbie making all of the men say the word "menstruation" and Julie recounting her first sexual encounter. It seems like the independence and progressing of females, and renewal of ideas, but can also deemed as the fact that they are in the state of incompetent to clearly understand themselves.


From my perspective, while encouraging females to be themselves and pursue freedom, this autobiographical film also hopes that men could grow into the mature ones who truly respect and understand women. The book on gender equality, together with the indulging punk helps Jamie grow up at the right time, which also points out the director’s intention.

From the three women, we capture the influence of feminism on them, but not mingled with any politics, movements or resistance, they just keep stepping forward in self-quest and anxiety.

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