The time is 1979.
The place is Santa Barbara, California.
And in this time and place there's a kid named Jamie. He's a pretty typical 15-year-old, all in all. A little rebelious. A little randy. A little mindless.
Then there's Jamie's divorced mom, Dorothea. She's a chain-smoking, Birkenstock-wearing 55-year-old. She's also, well, a bit rebellious. A bit free-spirited. A bit scattered.
Living with Jamie and Dorothea in their big ol' delapidated house are a couple of boarders. There's William, a fortyish handiman who's incrementally renovating the crumbling place while seemingly hiding away from the world. And there's Abbie, a 24-year-old fuschia-haired photo artist who's also a cervical cancer survivor.
Let's not forget Jamie's best friend, Julie. The pretty 17-year-old who sneaks in through Jamie's bedroom window and talks to him about sex she's having with other guys. In fact, she sleeps over often enough that she could almost be considered another resident of the house, too.
They're all living, learning, talking, fighting, helping, having sex with (and not having sex with) each other in a place and in a time brimming with social, cultural, political and musical change.
There's bound to be a coming-of-age story somewhere in all of that. Right?
Well … it depends on your perspective.
When we first meet William, he talks of his nearly spiritual connection with dirt, soil and Mother Earth.
Julie is the most visibly promiscuous individual in the movie. We see her in a bra and panties a couple of times. We also see her having sex with several different guys (with vital areas covered or offscreen). She speaks in raw terms about some of her physical encounters, making it plain that many of her sexual choices are perpetrated as a sort of oppositional-defiant punishment aimed at her divorced parents.
Jamie purchases a home pregnancy test after one of Julie's unprotected encounters, and we see her sitting on the toilet to use it (with just her bare legs exposed). Surprisingly, Julie refuses to have sex with Jamie. Though he professes his love and desire, she makes it plain that "friends can't have sex and remain friends."
Abbie and William connect physically as well. They kiss and engage in a sexual role-playing game in their underwear. We hear sounds of their lovemaking through a wall. In a flashback, we see a number of women William has been with, some dressed in skimpy outfits, others topless or completely naked.
William also kisses Dorothea at one point. She stops him, knowing that he's sleeping with Abbie. He tells her, "That's not something serious." "Then why do it?" she asks in return.
Abbie gives Jamie books to read about female sexuality and orgasms. He talks frequently about those subjects and the female anatomy. Dorothea finds a porn magazine in Jamie's room. (We catch a glance of a nude couple having sex). At one point, Dorothea starts to wonder if all the sex talk is healthy for him; but Abbie assures her that if he sees it all from a feminist perspective, it will make him a well-rounded individual. Abbie also kicks off a conversation at dinner one night about menstruation, leading Jamie and several men present in some "normalizing of menstruation" verbal exercises.
Abbie instructs Jamie on how to deal with guys and their braggadocios sex talk. She also successfully coaches him on seducing a twentysomething woman at a local club, a woman who ends up embracing and kissing the underage boy.
Someone asks Dorothea out, confessing that many of their coworkers thought she was a lesbian.
Jamie gets into a fight in which he's pushed down and punched repeatedly, resulting in scrapes and bruises. Abbie also gets into a fist fight with a woman at a dance club; she ends up with a bloody lip.
Jamie joins several others playing a "fainting game" that involves holding your breath and being physically squeezed. In Jamie's case, however, he passes out and has to be rushed to the hospital. Doctors clear him to be discharged after he awakens, but they warn of the possibility of brain damage from such reckless stunts.
Dorothea allows Jamie to ride alongside her moving car while he's on his skateboard.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dorothea takes comfort in cigarettes during most moments of stress or pleasure. When questioned about her unhealthy addiction, Dorothea pushes back by saying that when she started, smoking was simply stylish, not bad for you. We're told in a voice-over narration that her smoking eventually contributed to her terminal cancer. Julie is also a fairly heavy smoker who mentors Jamie on how to do it properly.
Beer flows freely in many dinner and party scenes at home and at dance clubs. Everyone we meet ends up imbibing, including Jamie, who gets a bit drunk on beers Abbie sneaks for him at the club. Jamie and Julie bribe an older teen to buy them some wine coolers at a liquor store.
We learn that Abbie's mom took a drug called DES during her pregnancy. It was later identified as the cause of her cervical cancer.
Other Negative Elements
Dorothea has a hard time being a mom; she's more apt to challenge the school principal about why Jamie should attend class than she is to hold her son accountable when he cuts classes. Dorothea enables Jamie's rebellious delinquency by sending deceptive notes excusing his non-attendance at school. In one, for example, she writes, "Jamie was doing volunteer work for the Sandinistas." She also cynically tells her son that thinking about being happy "is a great shortcut to being depressed."
The movie applauds the way the women surrounding Jamie introduce him to various vices as prime examples of liberated, modern thinking in action. Julie asks Dorothea, "Don't you need a man to raise a man?" Dorothea makes it clear that she doesn't think that's true. Julie opines that "marriage should never happen."
We're told that after Jamie's father left, he only called on "birthdays and holidays." Someone spray paints an offensive slur on Dorothea's car.
20th Century Women doesn't concern itself much with forward motion in its storyline. It doesn't even care all that much about a story, period. Director Mike Mills' semiautobiographical tale is actually more of an acting master class that bubbles and boils in a stationary, countercultural pot. It pays tribute to his mother and other female influencers who pushed and prodded him toward adulthood in an era of blossoming feminism and helter-skelter punk rock.
The onscreen result is a series of meandering scenes ruminating on the brokenness and, at times, the pointless pain of … being. This raw, dialogue-heavy slice-of-life story is all aflutter with unmoored musings about self-actualization, rebellious teens, parental frustration and unanswered questions—and lots of conversations about female sexuality.
In many ways, the film accurately captures the simmering feminist zeitgeist of the late '70s. It lionizes sexual liberation and celebrates the rejection of traditional cultural mores as brave, enlightened, progressive choices … that don't ultimately lead these characters to the happiness they're looking for.