i don't need a book to know about myself
20th Century Women begins with an aerial shot of the ocean, then a subtitle: "Santa Barbara, 1979." Importantly, that subtitle includes the period. Narration immediately connects the present to events in the past, Jamie's father, Dorothea's husband, their marriage, his car, their divorce. Other bits of narration and voiceover later will put various characters into the context of their history but even more, late in the film, we are offered specific facts about the future lives of these characters. That the title references the time period is no mistake, of course. This is about a specific time, a specific place, geographically as well as metaphorically within these lives. This is where Jamie and Dorothea and Abbie and Julie and William are at this moment. This is what their lives are like now. Now being 1979, of course. Summer.
The film even begins on Dorothea's birthday. She is turning 55. Jamie tells us about her life so far. Later, Dorothea will tell us about where her life will go from here. But, this is where we are. And, in a film that is ostensibly about people figuring out who they are, focusing in on a particular time is vital. Identity is in motion. Dorothea has a telling line: "Wondering if you're happy is just a great shortcut to being depressed." The point, form her perspective at least, is not to seek happiness, not to worry about tomorrow, but to just be, today. Invite the random fireman to your birthday. Accept the invitation from your coworker. Befriend and mother to your tenants. Experience the world as much as you can experience it here and now.
She only starts narrating--telling the story of Jamie's life so far, after she hears new music, punk music, that she doesn't understand. It's an interruption of her experience of the world as she knows it so she gets nostalgic. And, this initial narrative about Jamie culminates with an emergency, a stupid game that gets him sent to the hospital. Dorothea's life is wrapped up in her son, and, narratively, his near-death experience drives her need to know him, to understand him, and he immediately makes demands of her as well. This is their moment. Adolescent child, single parent, misunderstanding one another but still tangled up in each other.
As far as the plot, this is when she turns to Abbie and Julie to help Jamie figure out himself, to be a good man.
(Then, to catch up to Jamie and tell him what she has done, she literally has to chase him down, following in a car as he skateboards.)
But, the film is not really driven by this plot. This is just a skeletal excuse by the script to drift through these five stories. These five people have not always been in each other's lives, nor will they remain in each other's lives. But, in this handful of days in the summer of 1979, they are all linked together, so if there is any moment to zoom in on these lives, this is it.
Sheila O'Malley over at rogerebert.com describes it the timing of the film well:
Mills uses archival photographs and voiceover to express the connective tissue as well as the abyss between the present and the past. The future is present too. "20th Century Women" is narrated for the most part, by Jamie, although all of the other characters contribute. They tell us who they are, where they came from, there they're going. This approach is like peeking at the last page of a novel.
Even more than peeking at that last page, though. The film itself--its approach to story, to setting, to time and place and character (as inextricably linked as these things are, here)--is like opening to the middle of the novel, reading for a few pages, then putting it aside to let the characters keep living. Sure, you read the back cover, glance at the last chapter, look at the first page, but what you really sit down and read, is just a few pages in the middle. Maybe it's a novel about Dorothea Fields--this aging matriarch desperate to stay connected. Maybe it's a coming-of-age story about Jamie Fields--a boy eager to have sex and stuck with a girl who sleeps with him (platonically) every night. Maybe it's a cautionary tale about that girl, Julie Hamlin--a girl who will have sex with any boy but the one she really cares about because her mother's remarriage and her sister with cerebral palsy changed the way she views the world, life, and her place in it. Maybe it's it's a novel about Abigail Porter--an artist recovering from cervical cancer, a woman who learns she will be unable to create life even as she tries to create art. Maybe it's a novel about William (not sure we ever get his last name)--a handyman who just wants to make people's lives better, just wants to love women and make pottery. Reading just this chapter, just these few pages, you cannot be sure. This just happens to be the chapter where these disparate lives converge.
And, it's like catnip to indie film. The moment(s) where characters come into each other's lives and try to understand one another. In reality, it's fuel for identity formation. In film, it's everything.