20th Century Women: When Depression –Era Stoicism meets 70s Punk Passion

How do people really cope with their inner demons and which is the right way to exist? 

“It’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates an energy that’s really raw.”

By Kaya Purchase

The soundtrack to Mike Mill’s “20th Century Women” (2016) serves as the perfect trailer to the film. It’s mostly New-wave punk tracks from the likes of The Talking Heads and The Buzzcocks, but just when it reaches its noisiest, fuzziest peak it is interjected by the mellifluous notes of Loius Armstrong. This perfectly epitomizes the main dichotomy of the film, namely the enduring struggle of Dorothea (Annette Benning) – middle-aged mother to teenage Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) – to understand the world that is changing around her and to get on the same wave-length as her son.

This juxtaposition of two generations is what keeps the film interesting (and endearing) throughout. It’s a theme that exists right from the opening scene when Dorothea’s 1960 Ford galaxy spontaneously combusts in a parking lot as she and Jamie helplessly watch on. Dorothea says ‘ I loved that car’ to which her son replies, “Mum, it was old and smelt like gas all the time.“It wasn’t always old,” is her perceptive reply. “It just got old all of a sudden.”

That Dorothea ‘was born in the Depression’ is Jamie’s go-to excuse for what he deems his Mother’s embarrassing or odd behaviour. Dorothea: the perpetually-smoking stoic who likes to be in the midst of a community wherever she is; she invites people she doesn’t really know to parties or for dinner and has two lodgers, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Krudup) living in her ramshackle house.

Dorothea (Annette Benning) and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) 


This house is a house with history, just like her and just like the life histories that are told about each character at various points in the film. It’s also a house that is falling apart, but slowly being pieced back together in a way that the viewer knows will never be finished, but has a patchwork beauty precisely because of this.

Whilst these are all traits undoubtedly influenced by her childhood in the Depression, she is a character that transcends any stereotype in a way that is refreshing in today’s cinema. Portrayed beautifully by Bennet, Dorothea is a character that cannot be predicted or dictated. Jamie, looking back on his life as a narrator, says ‘I will try to describe to my son what his Grandmother was like and it will be impossible.’ Mills based this character closely on his own Mother, so perhaps its brilliance lies in its authenticity. Whatever the reason his inclusion of a female character that is fleshed-out, flawed and layered makes for salient cinema.

Finding herself suddenly adrift in a puzzling generation, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Dakota Fanning) to help her raise Jamie. She feels unequipped to do so herself now that her son has reached adolescence. Meanwhile, it’s clear that her reluctance to believe in her own capability is her overriding flaw. She didn’t need to ask them in the first place. This anti-authoritarian, loyal, caring Mother who respects her son as an autonomous individual could never be classed as the outdated, oppressive system that the punks are rebelling against.

Dakota Fanning as Julie


However she alone remains uncertain of her own capability and it’s this uncertainty, coupled with her determination to make sure her son is okay, that makes for such an interesting premise and allows the clash of two generations in a way that isn’t patronizing to either generation or its culture.

The main clash isn’t about music, fashion or sexuality. It’s how we deal with our problems. How do we cope with our own inevitable suffering?

The film touches a lot on self-awareness and therapy, as the younger characters attempt to disassemble and then re-assemble their selves and the world around them. For some, this is easier than others. Julie appears to be struggling with her relationship with sex, as she sleeps with boys she doesn’t respect who have no respect for her. However, here Mills takes a worn-out stereotype, the ‘troubled’ teenager and gives it a little more depth beyond the two-dimensional rebel exterior. Julie becomes all of us girls as teenagers: unsure what we want yet sexually, yet not waiting to be told by anyone else.

greta gerwig
Greta Gerwig as Abbie

Whilst it’s clear that her sexual activity is linked to some deeper vulnerability, the film shows that her issues are for her to work through alone. They will not be cured by letting Jamie love her. This gives Julie back the power, dodging the Hollywood stereotype that troubled teenage girls can be fixed by finally letting the nice guy love her.  Abbie learns to dance when she’s sad, seeks self-expression in photography and explores her own femininity through feminist texts.

This knowledge she passes onto Jamie, her interpretation of Dorothea’s request to help raise him being to introduce him to books such as ‘The Politics of the Orgasm’. Jamie seems to flourish under this guidance, revealing a boy who’s very emotionally mature and sensitive.

However, in order to fully grapple the adult world, he needs to also get to grips with his Mother. Dorothea is the silent centre of the circle that all emotion and trouble orbits around, revealing her upbringing in an age of self-denial. When Jamie asks her if she’s happy, he is met with the evasive reply, ‘Thinking about whether you’re happy is the quickest route to depression.’ 

We see her reluctance to ruminate or self- reflect met with William’s attempt to teach her how to meditate.

“All I’m really doing is bringing my attention back to my breath,” says William, eyes closed, legs crossed. “So when I take a breath in there’s a feeling; it’s air going in, it’s air going out. It’s a good feeling.”

“Men always feel that they have to fix things for women, but they’re not doing anything. Some things just can’t be fixed. Just be there, somehow that’s hard for all of you. “


As he speaks we see Dorothea, perhaps tempted by the description of inhalation, reach for a cigarette and spark up, clearly more interested in that than meditation. Here we see her go-to coping mechanism, the iconic stick of ‘revolution’, the only vice that she permits herself.

In her task to get through to her son, Dorothea is her own blind spot. Her son is trying to understand who she is, but he can’t do that until she herself faces who she is.

The film poses the question of how much of a woman’s life is defined by those around her, leaving her no space to define herself on her own terms. Dorothea hasn’t been allowed to proudly state who she is and her reserved resilience in the face of changing culture seems to be more about the fact that she only exists in the eye of society as a Mother, homemaker, supportive friend, all tired pigeon holes designated for women. She has never felt allowed to experiment with her identity.

For decades, women have been made to feel that their function was for others. They are supposed to be the emotional crux for those around them.

This could be why Dorothea is terrified of her son growing older because she fears that the durability of their endearing close companionship won’t last once he becomes a man. She’ll disappear in his eyes as anything other than a Mother, the typical home-maker to be relied upon practically, but not treated as an equal or friend.

This is why her character clashes sometimes with the blunt and open nature of Abbie. Abbie, a woman of a very different generation, isn’t afraid to take up space and likes to self-explore and ponder on her own identity.

“Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not gonna be anything like that.”


However, the audience is given an intimate look into the varied nuances of her self-esteem, instead of giving in to the patriarchal prototype that women are either reserved or extroverted. Mills shows Abbie’s character at some incredibly vulnerable moments without resorting to melodrama or victimizing her character. He also includes a scene where the audience sees that she needs to role-play during sex in order to feel comfortable, portraying that despite her ability to be vocal at dinner parties about female anatomy, she can be insecure.

However, this is where punk music serves as a tool for her, and then Jamie’s, generation. Punk music is not escapism. It is an outlet. It is something that you don’t need to hide behind.  Punk allows kids to be resilient because it equips them with the necessary outlets to burst forth a channeled force of anger and rebellion in an artistic (or hedonistic) way and then return to life feeling a sense of achievement, or at least involvement.

Overall, the film has a comforting message that we’re not alone in feeling like aimless and incomplete human beings.

Just like the DIY aspect of punk, just like Dorothea’s beautiful, dilapidated, never to be completed house, just like the adopted family that all play a part in raising Jamie, we are forever flawed, eternally evolving.

Can’t things just be… pretty?” asks Dorothea in response to being shown a track by the Raincoats. “They’re not good and they know that, right?”

Abbie replies by saying, ‘It’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates an energy that’s raw.”

Life’s not pretty, but this film is, not because it masks the suffering and listlessness of life, but because it lays it bare in all its complexity, and creates a collage that’s warm and artistic, to show that even hopelessness and confusion doesn’t have to be foreboding.  It just is what it is. 

You can follow Kaya on Instagram @kayaebony

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