‘20th Century Women’ is a Painful and Beautiful Ode to Uncertainty

A critical point in Mike Mills’ third feature 20th Century Women emerges when our cast of characters, along with a few others, gather around a TV to watch Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. A speech in which the unpopular President Carter stated:

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy… I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation…

Following the grim speech, the characters gather around for an awkward dinner where emotions are laid bare regarding menstruation and sexual activity.

Carter would go on to lose to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, bringing in 8 years of torture for liberal-minded folk like the ones we spend time with in 20th Century Women. The characters of the film, much like Carter, are plagued with unfamiliar external forces creeping into their lives and the uncertainty of how to respond to them.

For Annette’s Bening’s Dorothea, it’s that she doesn’t know what kind of person her teenage son will grow up to be. He lacks the guidance of a father figure and she feels as if she cannot connect with the person he is in the real world, outside of their household relationship. Greta Gerwig’s Abbie doesn’t know what her future is after what she thought it would be was ripped away from her by a cervical cancer diagnosis. Elle Fanning’s Julie is a promiscuous teenager who is so afraid of knowing herself that she lives her life through messages she finds in books. Billy Crudup’s William, quiet and desperate, wants someone to love him for him, but might be too accommodating to ever really let that happen.

Having personal uncertainty is fairly common, but it is exasperated by uncertainty in forces beyond your control. Scientific American wrote about the mental health effects of disasters that unfold on a nationwide scale, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. Obviously, these events are traumatic beyond comprehension for the people who experience them firsthand, but as they note: “Just watching television footage of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was enough to cause clinically diagnosable stress responses in some people who did not even live near the attacks…

Multiple references are made to Dorothea growing up during the Depression in an effort to rationalize her behaviors. It may actually be an accurate assessment, just for the wrong reasons. Her son, Jamie, notes this most often as he explains to people why his mother would ask two young women (one near his own age) to help raise him. Dorothea is likely affected by her Depression-era upbringing, but it may be more due to the uncertainty of being raised in a time during the worst economic disaster in American history, followed by the most deadly war in American history, followed by the JFK assassination, followed by Martin Luther King’s assassination, etc. etc. Dorothea’s life was plagued by what she knew on both small and large scales being taken away from her. What sets her actions off in this film is her son’s horseplay turning into him losing consciousness for 30 minutes and being rushed to the hospital. Uncertainty is what she knows and when it approaches her son — a bastion of stability — she reacts in a strong and emotional way.

Jamie, on the other hand, grew up with Nixon resigning and the conclusion of the most pointless war in American history. When an authority figure starts making unusual adjustments to his life with only a vague explanation, he raises an eyebrow and rebels in ways that might seem uncomfortable to the person trying to control him.

The election of Donald Trump caused a large spike in demand for mental health services. Many scoffed at this. Those seeking help are reactionary “snowflakes” who don’t know what a real life challenge is. But it wasn’t the pain of an unexpected loss that drove people to therapist offices everywhere — it was the uncertainty that the loss brought with it.

Mills, by his own admission, faults himself as being too sentimental about his characters and story, stating in an interview with Vulture:

My complaint about myself is, like, “Mike, can you fucking just be a little less sweet and vulnerable? Can you just be a mean person for once?” And the answer is no, I can’t. Films are so fucking hard to make and it is a cultural privilege to get to put this out there, so I’m going to put my poker chips in for an authentic, genuine, sincere connection between people.

20th Century Women and his previous film, Beginners are built on the unusual relationships of strangers and family. His characters in these films are searching for meaning and connection amidst a sea of loss and confusion. The most beautiful moments in Women come when the characters find comfort in what they know to be true and good. Whether it’s dancing to the Talking Heads, skateboarding or the morning routine of checking stocks.

And ultimately, I think that’s what Mills aims to say in this piece. It’s the last line of voiceover that clarifies that Jamie will find it impossible to explain his mother to his own children as she flies a plane with a big smile on her face. What’s good and true — those “authentic, genuine, sincere” connections — will top uncertainty, even if you find it hard to explain why.