I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film as warm and inviting as 20th Century Women. It’s a wide-open cornucopia of ideas, snapshots, and three-dimensional characters the likes of which cinema usually doesn’t get, and rarely ever are they female. This film is a vast improvement over Mike Mills’ first major outing with Beginners-and I love that film dearly, considering it one of the best of 2011 and rightfully earning Christopher Plummer an Oscar. However, it is here that Mills truly demonstrates his talents for the viewer, showing us a place in time, with specific people, trying to learn certain universal lessons that can help humans come as close as we can to living a good and happy life.
Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) gave birth to Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) at the age of 40. Shortly after that she and her husband ended up divorcing. For a while, things seem to flow smoothly between the young, curious Jamie and his Depression-era outgoing mother. However, with multiple generations between them, the times changing in their little town of Santa Barbara circa 1979, and Jamie approaching adulthood, their bond begins to strain. After a particularly harrowing moment involving the boys on the playground, Dorothea decides to reach out to the folks inhabiting the boarding house she runs. Realizing that all of the great men were dead or disgraced by 1979 (post-Nixon), and figuring that it may be more successful for women to teach a man how to be a generally good person, she decides that it will take three generations of women to help raise him: she will bestow him with life lessons and motherly advice, boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) will teach him how to express himself and be a good person, and childhood friend and crush Julie (Elle Fanning) will be there to guide him through his troublesome teenage years. With their influence, Jamie can emerge a good man and an even better person.
What’s amazing to me is how organic the film feels. It’s simultaneously so universal while still being so specific to a time period. This refers both to the themes of the movie and the moments on hand. At times, Mills begins to lose control of the big tapestry he’s painting on. And it’s hard not to, considering his film is attempting to find the meaning behind life, love, happiness, sexuality, feminism, and goodness. However, while the film has its moments of dragging, whenever it feels like it’s going to hit its breaking point, he always manages to reel it back in with a dramatic beat, a well-delivered line, or some good old-fashioned comedy. I honestly don’t know if I’ll hear a better line all year than when Dorothea asks Jamie, after he comes home bloodied from a fight, “What were you fighting about?” “Clitoral stimulation.” *beat* “Why do you have to fight about that?”
But what I’m more interested in are the specific moments. The little touches between Dorothea and Jamie that solidify their relationship, the way that Dorothea nervously waits up to hear the door open after he comes home late from a party, the non-sexual sleepovers with Julie, the emotional dance parties with Abbie when the stress of life becomes too much, each of these are moments that I know I (or my mother) can relate to, and that give the film a straining sense of realness. Hell, the band that “changes Jamie’s life” is The Talking Heads, which is literally one of the bands that changed mine (another of those bands, The Velvet Underground, are also represented in Abbie’s ripped and faded “Lou Reed” shirt).
What’s interesting about the film is how it plays with the idea of semi-autobiography, and how much of himself Mills put into it. I’m not sure if there was really an Abbie, or a Julie, or a William (Billy Crudup, the only male influence in Jamie’s life), but if there wasn’t, it’s strange to see their real life influence all over the film. Obviously, Dorothea is a stand-in for Mills’ own mother, and inspired the story at hand (I know this both from intuition and from the fact that Mills has never hidden this fact), but there’s more to it than that. If Julie’s goal was to teach him how to interact and pretend to understand social ideas and norms, then his ability to make two characters interact and have sparks of love comes from her. But more importantly is Abbie’s influence. Abbie is a photographer, and early into the film introduces a new project where she takes photographs of everything she owns, in the hopes of summing up who she was as a person when the photograph was taken. Infamously (some people, like me, love it, while other critics have panned it), Mills as a director uses still photographs spliced into the film under narration to explain universal ideas. For example, to show the era Dorothea comes from, images of Casablanca, the Depression, and World War II pop up on top of a white background, while Jamie is introduced through images of Nixon, the Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam. While this could be a stretch of the imagination, I can’t help but find it highly coincidental that Abbie’s project and Mills’ editing share so many similarities. Not that this is a bad thing-the editing on this film is so warm and vibrant, it almost feels like a character in and of itself. I don’t usually get that idea from the act of cutting a film, so I would consider that an achievement.
Of course, this movie mainly works because it belongs wholeheartedly to Bening. Bening is, in my opinion, one of the best actresses in the business, giving a stellar performance in every outing. Her pitch-perfect delivery in American Beauty is a performance I consider one of the greatest of all time. And yet I am shocked to say she has surpassed it here without even giving the impression of trying. Everything just seems so effortless the way she makes Dorothea so lived in. Every flick of the cigarette, attempt at a joke, flash of the eyes, everything she does is so beautiful and heartwarming that you look past the actress and see the character. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, mostly with actors portraying real people (Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Natalie Portman in Jackie…), but I can name on one hand the number of times an actor does it with a fictional portrayal. Dorothea is so perfect a character she joins that list with ease, and leaves me in tears.
Zumann himself is a find, having a sharp comedic timing, a wide-enough emotional range, and a baby face that is so damn charming I just wanted to pinch his cheeks. Crudup is also back to his best form-after a rough period following his big break in Almost Famous, he seems back to his charming, if slightly sleazy self, giving great performances in Spotlight, Jackie, and now this. And young Elle Fanning is proving herself a real star, giving great performance after great performance, and truly shining here as Jamie’s troubled and self-destructive friend who uses her sexuality as a way of finding happiness. However, if this film has anyone who stands as tall as Bening (or at least nearly as tall), it’s Gerwig as Abbie. For those who haven’t seen her smaller films, Greta Gerwig is the indie film scene’s darling. Serving as a triple threat (a talented writer, director, and actress), she’s something of a wunderkind. However, I do feel that this is her best performance to date. Filled with raw emotions from the unfair dealing that life has given her, Gerwig stands tall, with sharp line deliveries, a can-do attitude, a strong personality, and the ability to distract from the pain through photography and dancing. She’s the second most real character in this film, and watching her made my mind go to five different friends and mentors who have helped shape my life for the better. To summarize, these are three of the richest characters, let alone female characters, that I’ve ever seen, and if Bening, Gerwig, and Fanning weren’t this great and this likable, this film doesn’t work.
I’m going to leave this review with this note: despite little missteps and a slightly too-long running time, I wholeheartedly intend to see this movie again. And when I do, I’m going to bring my father. My father was a teenager in the late seventies, born just two years before Jamie was supposedly born. His mother passed away shortly before he was married, and three years before my own birth. Therefore, I can only know her through the vibrant and loving stories that are told. In the abstract, she doesn’t sound too different a personality than Bening’s Dorothea, and I’m hoping my father feels the same way. Considering Mills and Bening’s intention was to pay tribute to those great women no longer here that helped raise us and make us the good people we are today, I consider this a massive success.