Reel Dad: 20th Century Women celebrates mothers

My mother nurtured my view of the world.

She taught me how to imagine, gave me the courage to dream, scolded me for silly reasons and encouraged me to see life’s possibilities. Many years after she died I still miss her laugh, her habit of over-dramatizing and her fascination with all things surprising. I miss her every day.

Movie maker Mike Mills so cherishes the memory of his mother that he offers this lovely movie in her honor. His film 20th Century Women bypasses a traditional narrative in favor of a series of memories of a young man growing up in a house surrounded by women trying to secure their identities at a time of change for the sexes.

Yes, this is the 1970s, complete with period cars and clothing, rock and roll music and sensibility. The teenager Jamie finds himself in a home managed by his well-intentioned mother who welcomes any and all to the security of her roof. We meet Abbie, a woman searching for reason, and William, a man who finds it challenging to resist temptation, and a host of others who drift in and out. Most important we meet Dorothea, an ultimate mother for the ages, who simply wants her son to be everything he can be at a time when women struggle for the same clarity of identity.

Like many young men, Jamie experiments with ways to handle the issues of the day. He considers the importance of relationships and the appeal of temptations, questions his ambition and the need for discipline, and ponders the big questions of life. For his mother — beautifully created by Annette Bening — the small moments form a larger puzzle. While she wants her son to be healthy she spends her days chain smoking. While she wants her son to have big dreams she settles for a routine job for herself. And while she wants the best in relationships for her son she overlooks her own desires to connect. How she focuses on her son defines her purpose. How he relies upon her frames his expectations.

Moviemaker Mills — who also drew on his family experiences with the Oscar-winning Beginners — lets the film settle in a deliberate pace, never rushing sequences and emotions to shorten the running time. By giving the film so much air in and between moments, he makes it easier for us to breathe. And because we can breathe we can absorb the layers in the performances. Bening, especially, submerges her personality to give Dorothea an edge and a heart without resorting to the charm the actress can effortlessly convey. And Greta Gerwig is a revelation as a woman with many spirits who slowly recognizes how special she can be. The entire ensemble fills the screen with authentic moments, gestures and expressions that form a fascinating picture of a time gone by.

As with Beginners, the writer Mills captures the nuance of texture that define rich characters, while the director Mills trusts the writer’s words. Unlike his earlier film, though, Mills refuses to settle for conventional resolution. There are no happy endings in 20th Century Women. Instead we trust the passage of time will help each of these special people find peace in their hearts.

My mother would have loved it.

20th Century Women

  • Content: High. A mother’s story of persistence, daring and devotion comes to life in this daring look at her attempt to enlighten her son of the issues of growing up.
  • Entertainment: High. As serious as the relationships in the film, the crisp performances from an inspired cast celebrate the humanity of the characters.
  • Message: High. No matter how routine this mother’s situation may appear, the lessons of her choices will be meaningful to any parent.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine what it means to be a parent, and what parents will do for children, makes a visit to the movies worthwhile.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older teenagers, talk about what parenthood can mean to parent and child.

(20th Century Women is rated R for “sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use.” The film runs 118 minutes.)

Reel Dad rating: Five Popcorn Buckets

Let’s Talk Movies: Films That Celebrate Mothers

by Mark Schumann, The Reel Dad

As Mike Mills demonstrates with 20th Century Women, the joys and challenges of motherhood are made for the movies. Over the years, we have been treated to some striking portrayals of women with and without the maternal instinct. And many are just right for watching at home! Check out these films – including some Oscar winners – that capture what mothers can mean to all of us.


Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.
Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

This classic Oscar winner from James L. Brooks – for which Shirley MacLaine finally won an Oscar – is worth seeing over and over. And, as good as it looked in theaters more than 30 years ago, it looks even better on the small screen. Perhaps Brooks’ examination of the multi-layered relationship between a powerful mother and her strong-willed daughter hits the right notes when viewed at home where bonds form. Or maybe the subtleties of MacLaine’s complex performance are best appreciated when our eyes can be that much closer to the screen. Regardless of the reason, Terms is a real treat no matter where it’s experienced, even if you have seen it many times before.


Steel Magnolias (1989)

Much like Terms, this story of the friendships between women works better on the small screen today than it did in theaters all those years ago, even though it was a big hit at the time. Perhaps, at home, we can more closely follow the nuance of the relationships as they change, or its easier to catch the subtleties of performance without the distractions of a crowd munching popcorn. No matter the reasons, this Herbert Ross film stands the test of repeated viewings by making us laugh (in the scenes featuring Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Olympia Dukakis) and inspiring us to cry (when Sally Field reminds us who is the real star of the film). This one works again and again.


Ordinary People (1980)

No one expected much from this movie when it opened. Its source material – a book by Judith Guest – was well reviewed but certainly not a best seller. And its cast – especially Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch – was primarily known for working in television. But the reason this Robert Redford Oscar winner works best on a home screen has nothing to do with the pedigree of its cast. Redford is so subtle a filmmaker, and his movie is so filled with meaning, that it takes a quiet setting to fully absorb the content. Perhaps Redford knew its ultimate power would best be served when closely watched. And maybe that’s why he keeps the camera so tightly focused on his powerful players.


On Golden Pond (1981)

No one besides Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn (both in Oscar-winning roles) could make the roles of Norman and Ethel Thayer so timeless in this lovely adaptation of the Broadway show. As moving as the film was when it played in theaters – and as successful at the box office – it watches better on the small screen because the intimacy of the performances matches the size of the screen. We feel we are there in the cabin in New Hampshire as this loving couple, perhaps, spends its last summer together. And, when we are home, watching them at home, the result is all the more meaninful.


Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

On stage, it played with a minimal set and a small cast of characters. And won the Pulitzer Prize. While the film version “opens up” the proceedings to make us feel we are really in Atlanta for all those years, the movie still plays better on a small screen where we can study the detail of the marvelous performances from Jessica Tandy (who won an Oscar) and Morgan Freeman (who was nominated) as an unlikely pair of friends in a society ill prepared for their friendship. While Patti Lupone plays to the balcony in her small role as a social-climbing matron, the real power of the film comes in the small moments that Tandy and Freeman create together.


How lucky we are to savor these movies about mothers on screens as small as a telephone, while offering entertainment as big as the widest screen.

See you at the movies.