Santa Barbara, 1979
(I wrote this for an online website, but they passed on it and since I am very lazy, I'm gonna publish it here. Their loss and my laziness gain.) I’ve never been to Santa Barbara. It’s one of the places to visit on that list I never seen to cross anything off of. Work gets in the way or life gets in the way. Traffic definitely gets in the way. But 20th Century Women’s 1979 Santa Barbara feels like home.
I was born in 1993. I grew up practicing active shooter drills in my elementary school and wishing recess didn’t have to be canceled because of the DC sniper. I grew up with the birth of the internet, the death of American innocence, pop stars, boredom without any reason to be bored. I grew up with Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears. I didn’t put my feet in the Pacific Ocean until I was twenty-two-years old.
Home was Towson, Maryland, on a suburban road that dead-ended in a house we only went to on Halloween because they gave out the king size candy bars. Home was a hand-me-down Jeep Grand Cherokee that carried me over winding roads to my first real job, and the empty church parking lot with the streetlights that wouldn’t go out. Home was that one stretch of Old Court Road where the forty-mile-an-hour speed limit felt like a hundred miles an hour to a sixteen-year old.
I saw 20th Century Women for the first time after it was snubbed at the Oscars. Embarrassingly late for someone who’s a self-proclaimed ride or die fan of Greta Gerwig. It was a brutal summer afternoon in the living room of an apartment I shared with two other people. The living room was also my bedroom. Lucky for me, it was the only room in the walk-up apartment that had air-conditioning.
I sat criss-cross applesauce about a foot in front of the TV because you couldn’t feel the breeze coming from the window unit beyond that. I sat there and watched all two hours of 20th Century Women. For the first time since I’d moved to California, I cried for the home that was already gone.
20th Century Women tells the story of Jamie and Dorothea Fields and the ragtag family they’ve created in the boarding house Dorothea runs. Dorothea’s worried she doesn’t know how to raise a son because she’s out of touch with the world, so she enlists the help of Jamie’s best friend, Julie, and a tenant in the house, Abbie. With their help, Jamie learns how to be a man.
Towson and Santa Barbara have nothing in common. Santa Barbara has almost twice the population of Towson, but only one of the seasons. Towson is home to John Waters and Michael Phelps, while Santa Barbara has an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to notable people. Towson doesn’t even touch water, but Santa Barbara’s got miles of coastline.
It’s jarring to be understood by a movie about a place you’ve never been starring people you’ll never know in a time you’ll never be alive for. I’ve never been to Santa Barbara, I’ll never have the chance to meet Abbie or Julie or Jamie, and I was born fourteen years after the movie takes place. Yet it feels like it could’ve been my own memory.
I’ve called eleven different places home. Falls Church, Carmichaels, Fairmont, Towson, Roanoke, Morgantown, Lake Buena Vista, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Tustin, and Glendale. I’ve slept in eleven different beds and only shared ownership of a bed once. I’ve lived with my family and fourteen strangers. Of those fourteen strangers, I dated one and remained friends with a handful. I’ve driven my car up the coast, over the mountains, across the desert, and to the other coast.
The thing about home is that somewhere along the way it stops being a specific place and becomes a feeling you can find anywhere, in anything. It’s a serenity, a kind of calm that settles over you. The kind of calm you feel when you open your front door, drop your keys in the bowl on the table, and kick off your shoes after a long day. The kind of calm that washes over you when you fall into your bed with freshly laundered sheets.
When the movie started with the shot of the rolling Pacific waves and the soft psychedelic soundtrack, I felt it. I felt at home and instantly at ease. That’s what Mike Mills does well. He creates an environment filled with vibrant characters who feel like they could very much have walked out of a chapter of your own life story.
When the movie ends, Jamie’s voiceover is talking about how he has a son now and how Dorothea didn’t live to see the new millennium. The last lines of the movie go, “I will try to explain to him what his grandmother was like, but it will be impossible.”
Describing home is impossible. Four walls don’t make a home. A roof doesn’t make a home. Food on the table, a white picket fence, 2.5 kids. None of that makes a home, but it’s what we’re taught. Almost like a recipe. Add a six-figure salary, responsible significant other, a dog named Sparky, and beat until thoroughly mixed. That’s what they tell us, but there is no instant home recipe.
The roof on Dorothea’s boarding house is falling apart. The entire building is falling apart. There’s no white picket fence and there are always more than 2.5 kids around. Mix all of that together and you have a place that brings people together. You have a home.
When I saw this movie for the first time, I thought my tears came from a place of longing for a childhood that was gone. Maybe for a chance to relive it, but better this time. Smarter. I was wrong. I cried because for one brief moment I understood what we’re all doing here. I could see all the things that matter and all the things that don’t. The world, for just the tiniest second, came into focus.
I moved to California for the same reason everyone moves to California. I had Big Screen Dreams. We all come here with stories to tell, with our hopes and dreams packed in a tiny Ford Focus that’ll drive us across the desert to the Promised Land. I wanted to be a writer. I want to be a writer, present tense, but I thought I wanted to write for the movies. It wasn’t until about three weeks ago that I realized I don’t want that. I want to write books. That may not seem like a big distinction because it’s still writing, but the realization was earth shattering for me.
It’s hard to feel at home in Los Angeles. You spend too much time in the car to ever meet people who might become friends. It’s impossible to trust anyone whose favorite food is kale, so that kind of limits things too. The ones who are aspiring, though, they’re my favorite part of this place. The ones who came here to be an actor or a writer or a director or a producer. The ones who were driven to a strange land from the places they know and love, often alone, for a chance to do the thing they love.
20th Century Women doesn’t end all neat and tidy. It doesn’t pretend there’s a guarantee of a happy outcome for our time here. People die too soon, they lose love again and again, people defy the odds and lose track of each other. But at the end of the day, it’s about people finding each other and connecting for however brief a time they’re lucky enough to get. 20th Century Women reminds us all that home is in human connection.
I don’t think too fondly of Towson. Not for any particular reason, but just because it never really felt like mine. However, there’s nothing I love more than meeting someone who’s also from Towson because only they get what I’m talking about. They know what the free coffee in Ukazoo tastes like. They know what the mall looks like in the snow. They bruised their knees on the same asphalt. We instantly connected and understand each other, even if we’ve just said hello.
20th Century Women is a love letter to Santa Barbara and life in the ’70s in California. It’s dreamy and gritty and filled to bursting with love. I get the same thrill when I find out someone has seen this movie that I do when I find out they’re from my hometown. Because they know how this movie feels. How it buries itself inside your heart and makes a home for you.
Home is a person or a place or thing that's inside you. You can always find your way there.