I Want to Be Somewhere: Home, Heartache, and 20th Century Women

I Want to Be Somewhere: Home, Heartache, and 20th Century Women

Relating the architectural emotion of 20th Century Women to her own experience of growing up and growing out of one home, Brianna Zigler retraces the journey of creating a self from a space. 

My mom was born in 1959, on the cusp of rock ‘n’ roll’s everlasting domination in American pop culture. When she was still a kid, she had already lived through the hippie movement, Richard Nixon, and the Vietnam War, and by the time she was a teenager, flared trousers, big hair, and disco music had properly taken hold of the youth while infuriating the counterculture, and Taxi Driver was in theaters for the first time. When she was around my age and living in Philadelphia, she and a friend showed up to a Talking Heads concert with no tickets and begged a security guard to let them sit on empty benches in the back. They got to see the band perform a show from the same tour as Stop Making Sense, for free. I grew up listening to the Talking Heads in our old Honda Civic, “Road to Nowhere” blasting from the car speakers as we pulled out of our driveway.

The Honda Civic turned into a Ford Focus, and the Ford Focus turned into a Toyota Prius, and all three had sat in the same spot on black tarmac just off the side of the gravel alley, or in the two-door garage after dark. Sometimes, little wrens would sneak in through cracks in the window and hide underneath the tires – we’d have to guide them out so they wouldn’t get trapped. Now, that same Prius sits between white-painted lines next to a dumpster, lined up beside other makes, models, colors and designs, a number at the head of the spot to assign its place. When it’s dark, the Prius still stays outside, where anyone can see the dent in the back from when a guy rammed me for accidentally double parking at Old Navy; or the crack in the front bumper from when I pulled too far into a space at work, and hit a tree.


In 20th Century Women, Dorothea Fields stares at her burning car from across the grocery store parking lot, with her son, Jamie, their mouths agape, as the weathered, worn vehicle is inexplicably consumed by flames. When the firefighters arrive, Jamie bemoans the car’s age, the reason it spontaneously combusted in the first place. But Dorothea pushes back: “It wasn’t always old,” she persists. “It just got that way all of a sudden.” Nothing ever feels old as it ages, it’s that way all of a sudden – like me, and the Prius, and my parents, and our house, the only one on our street with the white picket-fenced corners – just the corners, because the borough wouldn’t allow my mom to line the whole front yard. Maybe the people who live there now will keep those fences around. I’ve driven by a few times since we left and they’re still up, but that house is still someone’s new toy to play with. My mom did what she could for years, to make it beautiful for someone else. We will never know where they will find the imperfections.

In Mike Mills’ 2016 film, conversations echoed between rooms line the walls of a house like another layer of paint, the memories made under the folds of bed linens and settings at the dining room table; the fights, the failures, the familial contentions, are not an extension of the confined space, but the very blood pumping through to a beating heart. A room is not just four walls, but an entire universe – a hurricane reflection of its inhabitants, a refuge, an entire other body living in the house. The space we share with the same few people for so much of our life creates a space that cannot be mirrored anywhere else. A space is not simply crafted physically, through hardwood floors and window panes, but it is one that travels with you long after the bookshelves have been cleared, the carpets rolled up, and you wonder how you never realized just how huge that room really was, as your voice suddenly echoes throughout an empty room. In 20th Century Women, a home is a person, and people are home.


The film is a portrait of feminine identity in a teenager, a twenty-something, and a middle-aged woman; how each of them views the world, the things they love, their dreams, their fears, at a moment of massive cultural change in the late 1970s. Women are rebelling and seeking further independence, and, at the same time, men are beginning to interrogate their own previously held notions of masculinity. But at the heart of it all is a house; a massive, imposing structure, eggshell white and adorned with columns at the entrance. Erected in 1905, the house was owned by the same family for years until the war bankrupt them and the house was set on fire. Bohemians then took over, and eventually lost it to the bank. That’s when Dorothea and Jamie came in. Dorothea explains all this to one of the firefighters she invites over to the house for dinner, to thank them for helping with her inflamed car. “It’s beautiful,” the firefighter tells her. “I completely fell in love with it,” she replies.

That’s not exactly what happened with my house, built in the 1950s by the same family who lived in it until my family took over the cozy, suburban split-level in the early 2000s. When we first moved in, I remember the shutters being bright blue, the body of the house a soft, pinkish tint. My mom told me that shortly after we moved in, about 19 years ago, for a while the father would occasionally come by in his car and look at the house from across the street, unable, unwilling, to pass it off to someone new. Since we left, I try to avoid the house at all costs – my parents moved into an apartment about five minutes down the same street, and my new apartment is about ten minutes in the opposite direction. I can’t really bear to look at the old house. I’m afraid of what might have changed, or that I might catch a glimpse of unfamiliar shapes shifting through the windows. I am afraid to accept that what I see is no longer mine. If I cannot see it, then maybe my pain does not exist either.

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Unlike Dorothea’s home, mine was maligned by my mother not long from the start. The house always had problems – my mom would lament this until the moment we left – from the plumbing, to leaking ceilings, vermin, bedroom doors, an unwelcoming neighborhood and nosy neighbors. I didn’t mind the lack of nearby friends to play with – I didn’t get along with other kids in school, and I was always content to stay in my room and create stories with my toys. But my mom was far less content in her solitude. Unlike Dorothea’s handyman, William, happily fixing up a beloved structure to turn it into something even more beautiful and cherished, the goal was always to fix the house up enough to leave. I don’t know when my mom decided, but she knew she wanted to leave for years. The garden was the only thing she worked on for herself. 

The rooms of Jamie and Dorothea’s house share whispers between one another through wallpaper and pipes. They tell stories of first love, as Jamie and his close friend Julie lay gently entwined with one another in his bed every night, Julie unable to give herself over to Jamie romantically as he pines for her. They tell stories of growth, and loss, of Abbie who rents a spare room as she recovers from cervical cancer and copes with the loss of her fertility, all while chronicling a portrait of her life in photographs. These rooms tell stories of change and toil, as wistful William renovates the home amidst its inhabitants’ rapidly evolving inner lives. And they tell stories of family, as Dorothea helplessly watches her only son transform into an unruly teenager she no longer recognizes.

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My house still shares whispers as well, though I can no longer hear them. My mom muttering her curses about the unreliable plumbing; about the mice in the attic and the peeping tom neighbors, who would peer into our backyard yard while she worked in the garden. Sometimes the whispers grow louder as they reverberate into shouts, the arguments given way by uninhibited hormones and teenaged resentment, friends that suddenly matter more than family, eyeliner that ages me into a woman I have yet to become. My room, with walls once covered in magazine clippings of pop punk bands, the full-length mirror where my friend wrote in permanent marker “Hi, Brianna” and once used to butcher my bangs when we were 14, and the lasting stink of sweat and sex. Like the rooms of Jamie and Dorothea’s home, mine felt like an extension of myself. From child to adult, it knew who I really was, alone and at my most vulnerable. There was no one in my life who saw me like my room did, the opposite of this exchange about Jamie between Dorothea and Julie: “You get to see him out in the world as a person,” Dorothea reflects. “I never will.”

The people of 20th Century Women make Dorothea and Jamie’s home what it really is. The firefighters, the dinners with friends, the screaming matches between Jamie and Dorothea, the individuals taking up space in each room of the house. Jamie and Dorothea sitting at the kitchen table, as Jamie reads Dorothea’s stocks to her, or Abbie and William engaging in roleplay before they fuck; or Julie taking a pregnancy test in Jamie’s bathroom, and Jamie helping her to pass the time as she waits anxiously for the results. Each room in the house is colored by an experience, by a person. A lasting residue left from their energy. The house can be as unique, massive and beautiful as it is, but it is nothing without bodies to shape it inside. 

At the end of the film, Dorothea foretells in a voiceover that she will die in 1999 from lung cancer, and Jamie reveals that he will have a son – that he will try to explain to him what his grandmother was like, “But it will be impossible.” People have assured me I will move on from my childhood home, that it is difficult at first but gets better with time. It happens to everyone. Even my mother was bewildered by my sadness as I watched her put the final touches on the kitchen, scrubbing the floor and wiping the cupboards of any lasting residue, to remind the new owners that we were once here. It’s impossible. Impossible to explain the attachment to my home even when I’m asked, even when I know the answer but can’t quite put it into words. It’s a feeling, it’s a currency, it’s the smell of walking inside after being away; it’s knowing the spaces where my lips touched another’s, it’s the squeak of the door as I slipped out after my parents fell asleep. 

It’s sitting with my mom on the couch to my left and my dad in the armchair to my right, as we begin our marathon of the Lord of the Rings trilogy at the end of Christmas day. 20th Century Women understands the importance of space – of the moments, memories we create within it, and how each one is uniquely a part of us, for better or for worse. I think about how I am a stranger to impermanence, as I type this from my tiny apartment that sits across the street from my old high school. I think about the carpeting with its permanent stains, my roommate’s old furniture that he has yet to sell, the popcorn ceilings and the paper-thin walls. I think about how I don’t know where I’ll be living a year from now. Jamie and Dorothea’s house was lost until it was found, my home was found again, too. I’m still waiting to find myself, though. I don’t know when that will be.

Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs) is a freelance film writer based in the Philadelphia suburbs. She loves movies about sad boys and has words in Film School Rejects, Screen Queens, Vague Visages, Much Ado About Cinema, and more.

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