Life and Death and “20th Century Women”

By: Daniel Reynolds

My grandmother, at 89 years of age, was trying to tell us something. She laboured to push the words out, but with an intubator covering most of her mouth no sound could escape. My uncle, her second son, third of four children, looked on confused. My great-aunt, her sister and last remaining sibling, was of no use either. The three of us stood there next to her bed in the intensive care unit at a loss as to what she wanted, or how we could help.

Two weeks prior, my grandmother — I’ll call her nonna, since she’s Italian and that’s her proper title — was admitted to the hospital with water around the heart. I didn’t know that was even a thing, and yet it was causing her great pain. After some deliberation, the doctors decided on a surgical procedure to investigate the situation, but, as sometimes happens, there were complications. This is, in fact, an understatement. For an incalculable number of minutes after the doctors signalled for a code blue, my nonna was dead.

No one wants to think about death, least of all when it involves your own family. We can make attempts to acknowledge it as inevitable, but that doesn’t make death any more palatable. While I am decidedly no expert on coming to grips with the experience, the only solace I can find is in clinging even more fiercely to death’s opposite: life. And for me, that means movies.

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20th Century Women, the new film from writer/director Mike Mills, is nothing like my life. It’s not even a one-to-one analogue to Mills’ own life, though it was inspired by it. The story regards a teenaged boy in late 1970s Santa Barbara, his mother, and some funky hangers-on. But like Beginners, which mined Mills’ relationship with his father for story ideas, 20th Century Women takes a turn in animating and understanding his mother. While the biographies of these two films don’t intersect — Beginners’ parents are separated by death; here, by divorce — there’s a presented reality that feels lived in. The details, in all their retro glory, look right.

With Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15 year old boy, as the ostensible centre of the narrative, the film tracks as a coming-of-age story at first. His mother is Dorothea (Annette Bening), a draftswoman and solo traveller on the path of life. Jamie’s father has disappeared from their lives. As a result, Dorothea has taken to filling the rooms of her ageing abode with boarders. First, there’s William (the always hirsute Billy Crudup), a shamanic figure who also doubles as a general contractor restoring the house; and then Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an off-kilter photographer and sensitive punk queen. This foursome would be odd enough, but the initial walkthrough of the house is actually done by a fifth: 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend and, of course, his first major crush.

Owing to the absence of a dominate father figure, and buttressed by a new age desire to raise her son to be a complete man, Dorothea conscripts the women in Jamie’s life to help raise him. (William lends a hand too.) It’s a tad twee as a premise, but one that pays off in a myriad of ways from the heavily emotional (there is both a cancer and pregnancy scare within) and humourous (the gang hits a punk club together). But the poignancy of 20th Century Women breaks through when we watch Jamie as he tries to understand more fully these people — these women — around him. To a teen boy, Jamie’s personal pain is paramount, his happiness most important. But as his eyes widen to see the trials which Abbie and Julie go through, the guarded search for happiness his mother is on, is to see him develop a new perspective. When Dorothea first comes to the other women with the idea of helping her raise Jamie, they resist. “I’m his friend, not his mother,” says Julie. But their actions inadvertently open his, and our, eyes anyway.

The most thoughtful scenes of 20th Century Women come when we view these characters not merely in relation to one another, but to time itself. As he did in Beginners, Mills uses voiceover and montage to remind the audience of each character’s personal and historical context. When Dorothea dances with William to old tunes on a jukebox it feels cute — until we remember she was born in 1928. The nostalgia she feels is very different from our own, her thoughts of the future are coloured by a different past. In a similar way, we consider Abbie’s foray into New York City and her visits to the punk clubs of 1979. Her life began in the straight-laced 50s, and where it will go is somewhere she cannot yet imagine, or even dare to hope for. Mills has his boyhood coming-of-age story — one with the expected youthful frustrations and confusion — but he drapes it over a superstructure of women’s stories; it’s their hopes and dreams, their worries and fears, that provide 20th Century Women its dramatic heft. Young Jamie is learning about himself too, but he’s also learning to understand them. It comes as no surprise then when the film’s final images go to Bening. She is the movie’s biggest star, sure, but her character has also flown the farthest, and shone the longest. We most want her to find happiness.

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It can be difficult to fully contextualize where your elders came from, be they living or dead. Even more so when that elder is a woman. By this point in my family’s life, my nonno’s story has become almost mythic in its retelling. He was a shepherd in the mountains of Italy, worked in a mine in Belgium, moved his family to Canada, did construction in Toronto, owned and operated a motel in Florida, retired to a life of gardening (and eating; he’s Italian). But what of my nonna, always at his side, defined in relation to his actions? The story of her origin is, to me, far more vague. What was her life like as a child? How did she feel about relocating across a great distance not once, but twice? What did she hope for or want out of life, and has she achieved it? Why have I never thought to ask any of these questions?

In that moment in the hospital, we eventually managed to get a clipboard and pen into my nonna’s hand so she could write down what it was she was trying to communicate. I’m embarrassed to admit I wasn’t even sure how much reading and writing she could do. (A picture texted to me, prior to the code blue, of my nonna reading a newspaper legitimately surprised me.) She’d spent most of her life tending house, working in a seamstress factory, and managing the upkeep, single-handedly, of the family motel. Now here she was, weak from her time in bed, scrawling something on a piece of paper. My uncle and I leaned in, so too did my great-aunt. After some time, and a glance at the clock — it was coming on 7pm — we figured it out.

It was time for the show she watched most nights after dinner, the one featuring a brightly coloured spinning wheel. After everything that had happened recently, and in her life as a whole, we sat now in this moment of understanding together. She managed to write down one word: “fortuna.”

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