'20th Century Women'
’20th Century Women’ makes a strong case for filmmakers indulgently wallowing in memory and autobiography. It’s a sweet and touching little picture that suggests writer/director Mike Mills might just be transforming into quite an interesting filmmaker.
A former music video director, Mills debuted into features with the toothache twee of ‘Thumbsucker’, then proved to be more ambitious and distinct when he helped Christopher Plummer get an Oscar for ‘Beginners’. That sophomore effort now feels like the product of a filmmaker in transition, weaving together a stereotypical quirky indie romance (featuring an adorable dog who speaks through subtitles!) and a more pained dramedy about the filmmaker’s complicated relationship with his own father. ’20th Century Women’ doubles down on the personal confession, offering viewers a window into Mills’ unconventional upbringing with his mother. It wrings as many messy emotions and queasy laughs as possible out of the material, striving for big ideas through small observations.
The story takes place n 1979, a year chosen for a mixture of autobiographical significance and its symbolic cultural transition. (Sounds pretentious, I know. But I assure you this flick is funny and fun as well.) Lucas Jade Zumann stars as Mills’ stand-in, Jamie, a quiet teen boy coming into age with gawky sweetness. However, his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), is the most prominent character in the story, a veteran of the Depression and a willfully single mom. She grew to appreciate the significance of the 1960s and embraces a communal approach to raising her boy. Knowing that he lacks a father figure, she asks two women close to her son to help train him to be a man.
One of them is Jamie’s closest friend and not-so-secret crush, Julie (Elle Fanning), an endearingly damaged young lady who frequently shares a bed with the boy for platonic comfort. The other is Dorothea’s boarder, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an art punk photographer and cancer survivor with a sweet record collection. Adding to the mix is Billy Crudup as a half handyman/half hippie who tends to fall into women’s arms and beds rather than seeking them out. Together, the group helps the kid grow up with all of the awkward humor and painful lessons that suggests.
What’s immediately striking about Mills’ film (aside from the warmly nostalgic imagery) is how humanely he approaches the characters. Almost like Jonathan Demme or Robert Altman in their primes, Mills avoids conventional notions of protagonists and supporting roles to let every character breathe and become the star for at least a moment. He stops the plot to delve into the back story of each character, ensuring that we know them in ways that they won’t necessarily express to each other. No one feels like a cliché or a writing device. They’re all fully rounded, flawed, and lovable in their own ways. As the title suggests, the women take more focus than the men. Zumann remains an observer for the most part, coming into focus slowly over the course of the story, while Crudup (who projects a wonderful quiet grace) plays a simple man whose strength of character tends to come out in what he doesn’t say.
The title women are all fascinatingly complex and flawed. Elle Fanning is fantastic while gradually revealing her teen crush figure to be a tortured and lonely soul to whom dating and romance are things that awkwardly happen without necessarily being sought out. Greta Gerwig alternates from being a punky instigator to a vulnerable lost soul with wider range that she often shows as an actress. Bening is the heart of the film, delivering one of her most nuanced performances, at once filled with knowing wisdom and completely lost in a world changing so fast she can barely recognize it from one day to the next. She’s loving and warm, yet prone to confusion and frustration.
No one is simple here and no one is complete. On the surface, this might be a coming-of-age picture about a teen boy, but it’s really about how no one ever truly comes of age. We’re all troubled works in progress struggling to live up to every age and era in our lives. Grand lessons get learned and characters change, but there’s little sense of closure. It’s a snapshot of a moment when these people mature into the next chapter of their lives, rather than a portrait of characters falsely becoming whole.
’20th Century Women’ is an ambitious film thematically, but it rarely plays as too self-important. (Unfortunately, when that happens, it happens in a big way.) Mills might love a good pop music montage or explanatory voiceover a bit too much and often gets lost in lofty ideas or quirky style, but he knows how to let characters and moments take charge when needed. The movie is perhaps be a little too self-satisfied with its own style and ideas, but its characters are so deeply felt and its sad/funny sense of reality plays out so truthfully that the flaws are easy to ignore.
When the film hits its peaks, it’s so sweet, beautiful, insightful, funny, moving and human that it’s hard not to be impressed. This is the sort of thing that we need more of in American film.