Review: 20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills

Runtime: 118 minutes

It has taken six years for Mike Mills to make another film. When we last saw him, he delivered Beginners, a touching ode to his father, who came out after decades trapped in the closet. Yet even though that film was all about the father, one of the most intriguing peripheral characters was Georgia (Mary Page Keller), a stand in for Mills’ mother. Now, over half a decade later, Mr. Mills is back to put Georgia (now named Dorothea, and sublimely portrayed by Annette Bening) in the spotlight she deserves.

Set in 1979 in Santa Barbara, 20th Century Women both exists as a maternal counterpart to Beginners while also standing firmly on its own. The film is just Mills’ third full outing as a director, and his voice has only grown richer in the too-long gap between new work. Beginners charted a man’s relationship with his father late in life (in which Mills got to be represented by Ewan McGregor; we should all be so lucky…). 20th Century Women, by contrast, takes the writer/director back to his childhood. Mills’ new avatar is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the teen son of newly-single mom Dorothea. Aptly, the film opens with the never-seen father’s car catching fire, thus firmly severing the last symbolic ties with the past. 

As we’re seeing a boy/young man in a highly formative stage, 20th Century Women uses Jamie’s place in life to examine those around him. In some ways, it calls to mind another 2016 release – Moonlight – in that it traces a child’s growth by embracing a nurture over nature (to a point) idea of how our complete adult selves form. We are largely blank canvases coming into this world, and the people present in our lives at critical moments of change affect our growth in ways both obvious and subtle. 

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Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig

And so, early on, Dorothea enlists photographer tenant Abbie (a wondrous Greta Gerwig) and childhood friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help raise her son. “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” asks Julie. To which Dorothea, nonchalantly, replies, “…no, I don’t think so.” “I think you’re what’s going to work for him,” she says at another point. And even though there is an adult male presence in the form of handyman William (Billy Crudup), the three women turn out to be more than up to the task, in their own ways. The film may set itself up as Jamie’s coming-of-age story, but the true subjects are the richly drawn women who lead him through that evolution.

Early on, it’s tempting to dismiss the set up as scattered. But as Mills settles into his story’s rhythm, the film blossoms. Both as writer and director Mills has grown considerably. His tendency to intercut archival footage and stills into his own material, at times grating in Beginners, feels purposeful and elegant throughout this new endeavor. Mills’ films are not necessarily about compartmentalization, but his framing and editing choices (as executed excellently by Leslie Jones) present memories as little moments to be treasured and isolated in curio cases. The lighting accents this notion as well, often capturing moments of stillness by isolating an overhead source of light, so as to catch the subject as if they were occupying a museum display.

Where Mills’ figures differ from museum oddities, however, is in their vibrancy. The voiceovers frame the characters in the past, yet while on screen they are thrillingly alive, even at their most ordinary. 20th Century Women can be brittle and caustic, but there is an underlying warmth at the core that practically floods the screen. And yet, in that tremendous warmth also lies clear-cut honesty. Mills and his characters don’t sidestep the painful realities of life, whether it’s those experienced by a parent or a child. But in that honesty, the film finds its transcendent moments. Those slices of life can be as significant as addressing a childhood trauma, or simply flailing your arms as you try to dance along the music around you. 

Grade: A-

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