Review: 20th Century Women

20th Century Women screenshot

Year: 2016 | Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh my God, Mike Mills. I’m simultaneously so thrilled and yet so angry that I’ve discovered his work in the past couple of weeks, first with the revelatory C’mon C’mon (2021) and now with 20th Century Women, a film which admittedly flew under my radar upon release and I am just now catching up on.

I’m angry because, as I mentioned in my review for C’mon C’mon, Mills is making the movies that I someday wanted to make. There’s something unnerving about having the delusion that I had a singular original vision in my head for years shattered by the discovery that another artist not only beat me to making films with that same vision, but is doing it at the astoundingly exceptional level that Mills is. This isn’t an exaggeration; the script that I have been (not-so-)tirelessly working on for years is based on the coming-of-age of a 15-year-old boy who discovers that punk rock can help him make sense of the world around him. Sound familiar? It fucking should if you’ve seen 20th Century Women.

Now, in fairness to myself, the details of my script differ significantly from the plot of this movie, and I by no means feel as though Mills “stole my idea” — it’s just that…how can I possibly say something more profound and eloquent on the theme than how it is presented here? Greta Gerwig’s character utters the single greatest description of what makes punk rock so powerful and empowering and liberating in this film that I have ever heard in my nearly twenty years of listening to punk music; if, by the grace of whatever forces influence the universe, I’m lucky enough that this script that I’m writing that is not even finished yet someday becomes a film that somebody outside of my personal social bubble actually sees, this is the point of comparison. This is the level that I have to aspire to. The odds are already so stacked against me as an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker, and now Mills comes barreling into my life like a wrecking ball and drops this kind of pressure on me? It’s a fucking lot, and it’s almost enough to make me want to chuck my laptop out the window and just reserve myself to a “normal” life. Okay, maybe now I’m being a little dramatic, but you get the point, yeah?

All of this is to say that I really fucking like Mike Mills’ movies. He’s only made four films, and he’s already very high up on my favorite directors list, and I haven’t even seen Thumbsucker (2005) yet. He speaks to me on a level that I’ve rarely experienced at all in films, much less in multiple films by the same director. He’s just so empathetic, and compassionate, and human.

I’ve been thinking about interactions with other people a lot lately, and how my words and thoughts that I think that I’m just throwing out into the cosmic void actually affect other people, and how their words and thoughts in turn affect me. Just today, actually, I surpassed 1,400 followers on Letterboxd, and I’m poised to break 900 followers on Twitter in the next couple of days — not huge numbers by any means on either platform, but certainly as large a circle of influence that I’ve ever had in my life. And in the past week or so, I’ve felt the effects of that growing platform on how I’m able to express myself when so many eyes are watching what I say. It used to be that I could throw pretty much whatever I was thinking, no matter how profane or potentially unpopular, on social media and not have to worry about it because only people who personally knew me were ever going to see it, anyway. But then last week, I posted a tweet about a subject that I thought was harmless enough, but ended up getting picked up by a more popular account than mine and before I knew it, I was being inundated by dissenting opinions — some respectful, and some less than. I didn’t really know what to do or how to respond, so I ultimately ended up muting the notifications on the tweet just to drown out the noise.

And really, isn’t that basically Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) experience in 20th Century Women? He lives in this boarding house with all of these different personalities and has a best friend who is older and is more experienced than him and a mom who is basically removed from him by two generations, and he has all of these influences in his life who have their own individual idea of who he is (and vice-versa). So when he says something, he really has no idea how each individual person within his world is going to respond, regardless of his intention. And on more than one occasion, he flees this environment where he perceives that nobody understands him, in desperate search of one where people do.

That’s the magic of Mike Mills’ films: he’s able to get to the core humanism at the center of his themes and speak to a truth that can resonate with all kinds of people. Here, that truth is that each individual person that you interact with in your life — whether it be four people in real life or hundreds of people in the virtual world — perceives your actions through their own lenses, shaped by their personalities, age, gender, upbringings, socio-economic status. And in turn, you interpret every person who interacts with you through your lens, which could be similar to or worlds apart from anybody else’s. And eventually, we all find the people whose lenses are compatible with ours, even if it takes some of us longer than others.

The point that I’m making here is that as my platform continues to grow and the sheer number of people who interact with my thoughts increases, it’s important for me to remember that my words can have consequences on other people that I never even dreamed they could. My intent doesn’t matter so much as how my words actually make people feel, and while there’s certainly no pleasing everybody (especially on the internet), it’s my responsibility to choose those words carefully to express myself clearly. After all, it’s not just one collective mass of followers (and potentially non-followers) reading my thoughts, it’s hundreds of individuals with their own unique perspectives.

In other words, I have to remember to be human, even in a digital world.

Language: English
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 1 hr. 59 min.
Rating: R

Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup

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