A24/Annapurna Pictures

The new film portrays 1979 as a moment when Americans might have gone down a different path.

President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “crisis of confidence” speech figures prominently in Mike Mills’s new film, 20th Century Women. In the speech, Carter asks the American people to choose a different path, one that involves less consumption, materialism, and self-interest. Sacrifice in order to solve the energy crisis is at the heart of the speech, but Carter’s words speak to ethics more broadly:

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path...that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.

In 20th Century Women, set in the Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito, a group watches the speech together. They sit in the large but crumbling home of the film’s protagonist, Dorothea, a single mother raising a teenage son. Though her guests make disparaging remarks about the speech, Dorothea pronounces it “beautiful.”

Dorothea is a child of the Depression who had her son, Jamie, at age 40. Her relationship with him has become difficult, so she enlists the help of two young women—20-something Abbie, a lover of punk rock and a survivor of cervical cancer who rents a room in Dorothea’s house, and 17-year-old Julie, Jamie’s best friend—to help her raise him. The film is largely a well-drawn character study of the women and their relationships with each other, Jamie, and another boarder, a hippie-ish, working-class man named William.

Dorothea is trying to understand and even embrace the times in which Jamie is growing up. She listens to Black Flag, rather horrified, but enjoys a foray into the Talking Heads. She goes to clubs like she’s doing anthropological fieldwork. She seems open to people of different classes and races, inviting to dinner the firefighters who put out a blaze in her car or a young black man she meets at a club. She’s “on board” with the women’s movement (though she gets squirrely when there’s talk of menstruation at the dinner table). All that is to say: Dorothea is a person who could go down Carter’s recommended path of self-sacrifice and concern for others.

Of course, voters ultimately rejected Carter’s plea and elected Ronald Reagan in 1980. With Reagan’s administration came a higher dependency on oil, a cult of consumption, enhanced inequality, and a U-turn on civil rights. At Reagan’s urging, the Republican Party removed the Equal Rights Amendment from its platform in 1980. He also stymied progress on voting rights, which had been championed by Carter.

Today, we live with the consequences of these policies, many of which have continued to the present day, some regardless of whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in office. Such stark conditions have contributed to the rise of protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, as well as the election of Donald Trump.

Mills told Santa Barbara that Montecito was an ideal place to film 20th Century Women because it hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. “[T]he hedge-lined streets of lower Montecito are perfectly in period,” he said. (Mills would know; he grew up in Montecito in the ‘70s.) But while the suburb’s aesthetics may endure, the film is painstaking in its portrait of a specific time and place about to face a torrent of political change.

20th Century Women opens nationwide on January 20.

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