American culture in the mid-20th century begs a multitude of descriptions, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would probably be “smoking.” People chain-smoked through the Vietnam protests, Watergate scandal, Stonewall riots and innumerable other events, both historic and mundane.
In the intimate, lovingly crafted “20th Century Women,” the cluster of characters smoke incessantly. Smoke is on par with oxygen, with the cigarette as much a part of daily life as intellectual talk. Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the movie says: “Back then, everyone smoked in the real world and everyone smoked in the movies. As a filmmaker, I can tell you that cigarette smoke brings an ambience to the frame like nothing else. And smoking used to look so glamorous … in classical Hollywood movies, everyone had cigarettes in their hands and the scenes are wreathed in smoke.”
The centerpiece of “20th Century Women” is Dorothea (played by the excellent Annette Bening), a feminist single mom in 1979 who’s well-equipped to discuss the fate of America and her ideals with like-minded women, but not so insightful when it comes to dealing with the angst of her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea is heavily based on Mills’ own mother, also an opinionated, free-spirited woman who gave birth to Mills when she was 40, before getting a divorce from his father.
“My mom was kind of butch. She was a pilot and aspiring architect who grew up in the Depression era,” Mills says. “She didn’t want to be a normal woman, she wanted to be someone freer, more agile and adventurous. Her role model was Humphrey Bogart and she loved the way Bogart smoked and she herself was rarely without a cigarette in her hand.”
Smoking had different connotations for women in the 1920s and ’30s, Mills continues: “It was a radical gesture and a feminist statement all by itself. Because women could rarely be outspoken, they let their cigarettes do the talking.”
“20th Century Women” and the authenticity of its women smokers is as much an ode to 1979 as it is to the director’s mother, and Jamie serves as a spokesman, both for the era and for the mood in Santa Barbara, California, where the film is based and where Mills grew up.
“Jamie is old enough for sexual adventures but he’s also young enough to be awkward among older women, which is what his household is all about,” says Mills. “He has complicated relationships, and I guess a part of me wanted to relive the relationship with my own mother.”
Mills’ script was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and it’s easy to see why. The film doesn’t evoke a rose-tinted nostalgia for mid-20th century America; instead it anchors viewers’ emotions firmly in the present, with its core messages about women, growing up and life in general still as relevant as ever.
Dorothea takes in boarders to help pay the rent for a glorious but crumbling house in Santa Barbara. (The decor is sheer eye candy to American vintage connoisseurs, with some of the furniture brought in from Mills’ childhood home.) At first glance, the household community comes off like an episode of “Friends.” On closer inspection, though, it’s revealed that growing up there has left Jamie confused and ambivalent toward women — his mother in particular.
Jamie especially resents how Dorothea talks about him to anyone who takes an interest in the family, and how she enlists the help of her friends in raising him. Her mainstays for advice and discussions are 17-year old Julie (Elle Fanning) — who’s always dangling a cigarette from the corner of her mouth and is in therapy — and her boarder, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an intriguing mesh of punk, photographic talent and casual sex, whom Mills says is “based on my sister.”
“My sister was in her late teens in the 1970s, a child of the era who was sexually active and very liberated, but she was also struggling against the status quo,” says Mills. “So you see, I grew up in a household of very strong women.”
Jamie has a crush on Julie but has no idea how to express himself without being sexual about it. Julie, for her part, values him more as a friend and a sounding board for her own ruminations on love and life. Their conversations are poignant, hilarious and often haunting, reminiscent of a time when dinners with friends and family didn’t involve the intrusive presence of buzzing smartphones surreptitiously placed next to wine glasses and dessert plates.
Actually, all the characters in Mills’ film hold long, in-depth conversations, often at the kitchen table, on how to live, think and act in a world that seemed to make less sense every day. Four years after Vietnam and two years before the Reagan administration, Dorothea puts the year in a nutshell: “Now it’s 1979 and nothing means anything.”
Mills says that his mother was one of the defining presences of his childhood and teens, and Dorothea is certainly the driving force behind “20th Century Women,” though she makes no attempt to control others or dominate her son.
“One reason I picked Annette for the role is because she’s a San Diego girl who has always been very natural and adventurous. I wanted someone whose face was roughened up by the sun and wind, but also wouldn’t mind showing it all on the screen,” Mills says of his casting choice. “She also looks super-cool with a cigarette, which was a bonus. I had people ask me whether the lines on her face were from all the smoking, and I said not, they were from being outdoors and having a great time.”
When asked if he misses 1979, Mills is thoughtful.
“I guess what I miss the most is being bored. It’s different today, I think people can’t stand to be bored — even a second of it comes along and they have to reach for their phones. Also, the whole idea of raising kids have changed,” he says. “For Jamie, getting in and out of trouble without adult intervention or relying on a gadget was really important. I think that kind of freedom is very rare, these days.”
Yet Mills stresses that his film isn’t a swan song for the past and how it was much better back then.
“For example, not everyone was so nice in Santa Barbara. In my high school, there were no gay people or trans people. Feminism wasn’t an issue that was talked about. But all of that is happening now, in the present,” he explains. “What I was kind of trying to show is that connections aren’t permanent. Everything changes and even the most moving, shattering moments are transient.”
As one of the film’s lines asserts, “We talked all the time, but maybe not.”