It’s a rare bit of magic when a movie can perfectly blend comedy and drama to create a bittersweet poignancy. Writer/director Mike Mills has performed just that with his new film 20th Century Women. His tale of a collection of oddballs who form a unique family unit in a specific time and place in America’s recent past is mournful, yet hopeful. It captures the humanity and heartbreak in everyday relationships: mother and son, deep friendships, and lovers. The movie is an examination of the sublime that’s hidden in the mundane. It’s a transcendent experience.
At the core of 20th Century Women is Dorothea, a single mother raising her son Jamie in Santa Barbara, California. The year is 1979. Jamie is entering adolescence, the fractious period every parent dreads. Dorothea sees the changes in her son, and she realizes she will need help guiding him safely into adulthood. To aid in this task she calls on Julie, Jamie’s closest friend, and Abbie, a young woman renting a room in the old Victorian-style house Dorothea is restoring. Also living in the house is William, another boarder who pays part of his rent by helping fix up the house.
Mills thrives on the eccentricities of human behavior, and that was at the heart of both his quirky feature-film debut, Thumbsucker, and his divine follow-up, Beginners. He mines the human experience to create cinematic situations that invoke hearty laughs alongside a profound sense of melancholy. Dorothea has a heartbreaking exchange with Abbie about her son growing up, and pulling away from her. “You get to see him out in the world, as a person. I never will,” she tells Abbie. It’s a sadness that only parents can experience as they realize that they know their child less every day. Mills is a powerful writer. I felt that sadness, even though I am now and plan to be forever childless.
The movie also has a healthy, welcome, and rich sense of humor. Whether it’s Dorothea’s dumbfounded reaction to punk music, or the simpler touch Mills adds when he gently pokes fun at the amount of cigarettes everyone in the ‘70s smoked, 20th Century Women is often laugh out loud funny. Everyone we meet feels like a fully formed person, not just a collection of quirks. Abbie is dealing with a cancer scare that threatens to completely unmoor the already-drifting 20-something. Though Julie is the same age as Jamie, she has a much older soul. That doesn’t help, though, in her dealings with her own mother, a therapist who treats her more like a patient than a daughter. Even William, a seemingly surface level hippie who enjoys working on cars and chasing women, has deeper layers.
Through multiple doleful voice-over narrations, we get insight into Mills' characters. During these passages, we travel into the past to learn why they are the way they are, and even, in a few moments, we see their futures, sometimes decades after the events of the movie.
Mills also captures a period in American history with great accuracy. The whole group gathers around the television to witness Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which many believe doomed Carter in the following year’s election. After the speech is over, most in the room agree that Carter is screwed, but Dorothea sees the beauty in it. Carter is speaking the truth, no matter how unpopular it might be, and she appreciates that. The rest of the country didn’t agree; they chose to shut their eyes to hard truths, preferring to focus instead on an imagined “morning in America.”
Composer Roger Neill brought the unique synthesizer sound of the late ‘70s back to life with an elegiac score. It underlines Mills’ overall tone with a contemplative mournfulness. Neill’s keyboard is complemented by an infectious string of pop songs contemporary to the movie’s setting. Everything from Talking Heads to Buzzcocks are included, and the tension of that time period between punk and new wave is even explored through the characters. Kids who identify a little too closely with the violent and authoritarian aspects of the punk scene harass Jamie throughout the film for his love of what they call “art fag” music like Talking Heads. It’s another way for Mills to explore the layers of the American experience of the time.
20th Century Women’s performances also don't disappoint. As Dorothea, Annette Bening is sublime. She has a cynical world-weariness, but she also has an appreciation for life’s inherent beauty. Elle Fanning plays Julie with staggering vulnerability. She is completely unselfconscious in the role, and displays the skills of an actress twice her age. Greta Gerwig perfectly navigates the confusing terrain of early adulthood as Abbie. She brilliantly encapsulates how perplexing it can be to realize that true adulthood can be postponed until her 30s. Newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann does a fantastic job as Jamie. His not-so-subtle, literal pulling away as his mother reaches out to touch him sums up that period in a young boy’s life. Billy Crudup delivers a wonderful, introspective William. His surface level interactions with Dorothea only hint at the turmoil beneath his mellow façade.
This is a movie I will return to again and again. There is a warmth to the characters and story that feels like visiting with an old friend. At the same time, Mike Mills reminds us that it is imperative we make the most of every moment, because our time here on Earth is fleeting and, just like that, it will all be over, and we’ll be left wondering where the time went.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Simply put, 20th Century Women is a wonder of a movie. It's moving, funny, and incredibly heartfelt. I deeply regretted seeing it after I had released my best of 2016. It easily would have made the top five.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Mills makes reference to one of my all-time favorite movies. In fact, he included a clip of it. The experimental film Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio is a meditation on human society and uses beautiful imagery and music to explore how our current way of living is out of balance. Mills' use of the clip is a bit on the nose in the context of the scene in which it appears, but I really appreciated its inclusion.
- I mentioned the music, but it bears repeating: Roger Neill's score perfectly complements the movie. It's a magnificent piece of work.
- 20th Century Women is opening nation-wide today (01/20/17), and A24, the company that is distributing the movie, will make a donation to Planned Parenthood in honor of all the women (and men) who see the film this weekend. Planned Parenthood consulted on the film, and the positive role the organization plays in women's lives is very important to director Mike Mills. Click here to see a featurette where Mills and stars Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning discuss issues important to women. The video also features an exclusive interview with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. Some big, probably very damaging, changes are coming to the country today. Organizations like Planned Parenthood can use as much support as we can give them.