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20th Century Women: It Takes a Village

In 20th Century Women, director Mike Mills expands past traditional definitions of motherhood to examine the variety of forms mothering can take.


In Mike Mills’ 2016 film 20th Century Women, mothering, and its endless incarnations, take center stage. 55-year-old single mom Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) is raising her teenage son, Jamie, in 1979 Santa Barbara, feeling out of touch with the cultural trends of the emerging decade. As she begins to worry about this disconnect, as well as the fact that she alone may not be ‘enough’ for her son as he enters his late teens, she asks 24-year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) to help her raise Jamie by sharing their lives with him. What begins as a--somewhat strange--vague request of two women much too young to be the biological mothers of a 15-year-old transforms into a fascinating exploration of the multi-faceted nature of ‘mothering.’

Biological motherhood also features prominently in the film--after cancer, Abbie is told she cannot have children and Julie experiences a pregnancy scare--but it is the ‘mothering’ each of these women perform for Jamie that is the focal point of the film. Abbie dedicates herself to Jamie’s feminist education, providing him with reading materials and taking him to punk rock concerts. Julie shares sexual anecdotes and forms an intense connection with the lovesick Jamie, frequently sleeping (platonically) beside him. Both do so with an awareness of Dorothea’s request, and as a result, Mills expands the typically too-narrow definition of motherhood.

Central to this expansion is an association of mothering with a son’s sexual education. Such a topic is typically taboo or treated with extreme awkwardness, with a conservative American discomfort with teen sexual education placing these discussions out of bounds for polite society. 20th Century Women explores how this education is pivotal to Jamie’s personal development. He expresses a wish to be “one of the good ones,” and the feminist literature he consumes as well as his friendship with Julie grant him the sensitivity and language to fulfill this wish. Had his two other mother figures shied away from this subject entirely, Jamie would have been left in the dark, dependent on his own discoveries and devoid of the critical perspective of these two slightly older women. In this way, 20th Century Women is a testament to the value of this broader vision of mothering, breaking away from the stereotypical cloistered ideal. However, it is notable that is the two non-biological mothering figures in Jamie’s life that assume the bulk of the responsibility for this element of raising him, perhaps indicating a lingering discomfort with ‘traditional’ mothers speaking to their children about sex.

Regardless, the inclusion of multiple mothering figures remains one of 20th Century Women. Apart from Dorothea’s fear that she is not ‘enough,’ there is little anxiety about the ‘appropriateness’ of Jamie having these younger mothering figures. Their success and the ways each woman shapes his adolescent journey speak to the benefits of this communal approach. It is a reminder that the rugged individualism and the primacy placed on the nuclear family above all else are features of American culture--they are not a universal necessity. By expanding notions of kinship and mothering, Jamie gains critical experiences and relationships that he would not otherwise have. With this chosen family in mind, it is striking that Mills does not fall into the trope of having Dorothea search for a male role model, a plotline that would signal a lack of another male as a defining absence of Jamie’s life. Instead, Mills has Dorothea turn to two other women, and while one of her tenants (Billy Crudup) serves as a masculine influence, his is not the defining voice of the film. Mills allows this mothering trio to be ‘enough,’ and in doing so, re-frames the shapes that motherhood can take.


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