Director: Mike Mills
Rating: R (for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use.)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Date: December 28, 2016
Annapurna Pictures, Archer Gray, Modern People, and A24.
Written by: Mike Mills.
In 2011, writer/director Mike Mills’ second feature, Beginners, told a moving and stunning story of his father, who came out as gay at the age of 75, following the death of his wife and Mills’ mother. The film won Christopher Plummer an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Mills’ film was celebrated throughout the awards season, with many calling him a filmmaker to watch in the years to come.
It has taken five years for Mills to release his follow-up and one has to wonder if the visual artist and filmmaker simply needed to step away from the spotlight and profile for awhile. In his comeback, he dips into his past and produces another semi-autobiographical film in 20th Century Women, which builds a tale around three women who have significant impact in the formative years of teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).
Jamie is raised by a single mom, Dorothea (Annette Bening), who lives life as if she is managing a big huge tent that everyone is invited to hang out underneath. Predominantly, two other women are circling around Jamie in the form of punk-rock photog Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and promiscuous teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), who sneaks into Jamie’s room every night for late night talks and platonic sleepovers in Jamie’s bed.
The atmosphere swirling around Jamie is rather unconventional and Dorothea feels as if he is lacking a positive male role model. Largely, this emanates from her insecurities in allowing herself to get close to a man after a damaging divorce. So she turns to Abbie and Julie, asking them to serve as a mentor to her son.
Mills frames all of this from Jamie’s perspective, and so the film has a sense of wide-eyed wonder and curiosity in nearly every frame. Most of this time, this serves the pacing well, Jamie is receptive to the environment and appropriately naive and innocent as to how he is treated by those in place to guide him and shape his views of the world.
Bening is sharp, dialed in as the nonconforming mother, aware that she may have a few too many open boundaries for her son, but also a bit unwilling to close them. Gerwig dives into Abbie, finding the voice within the inherent contrast of a fist-pumping punk and a vulnerable young woman accurately. She creates a character who has overcome some difficult obstacles in her teenage years and insists on staying as independent as she can. Julie, the daughter of a therapist, will not allow a romantic relationship with Jamie, but is all too willing to share her carnal exploits with him in those bedtime sleepovers which leave Jamie supremely confused.
Interestingly, a handyman named William (Billy Crudup) hangs around, offering witticisms, thoughts, and observations. Eventually, he begins to have an impact on Jamie’s life, but as we later learn, he finds himself traveling his own distinct path through life.
Almost in narrative defiance, 20th Century Women doesn’t really have a story, outside of the basic situations that these characters find themselves working through. Using flashbacks, flash forwards, and dense dialogue and character focus, Mills explores his world deeper, but also leave cards untouched on the table when it comes to ways in which backstories may or may not connect. Like life, not everything has a resolution and Mills breathes in the air around the moments he and his cast create on screen.
For some, this might come off as self-serving, unresolved, something akin for a party of one (i.e. Mills himself). Mills’ third film strides forward confidently, with sensitivity, and reminds us that we all make mistakes, we all are lost from time to time, and that is part of the human experience. In short, not being perfect is okay.
Sometimes that is something we all need to be reminded of. And sometimes, it barely holds up enough weight for a two-hour movie. However, for those who like watching slice-of-life dramas, with elements of comedy sprinkled throughout, and a focus on well-rounded multi-dimensional characters and stories, 20th Century Women might just connect for you in some unexpected ways.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- Well-acted, earnest and honest, 20th Century Women just works on many levels.
- Annette Bening leads an ensemble of truly unique and well-written characters, which is a Mills trademark thus far in his career. These are interesting people and worth the time to explore, connect with, and relate to people in your life or experience.
- Just a great movie. Not everything connects but it really doesn’t have to. The overwhelming sense that family is undefined and can comprise any number of people who love and care for one another is a message we all could embrace and celebrate.
- In full disclosure, someone I know spent a half hour with this and texted me, “this reminds me why I hate indie movies.” I don’t quite know what that means, but this is a dialogue-driven, contemplative, character-focused comedy/drama on a relatively small budget. So, I guess the new Transformers arrives for you later this summer.
- The multiple storylines and the failure to wrap all of them up will frustrate viewers who like their time spent to matter on resolution and not ambiguity.
- Some viewers have complained that the film takes the position that the only way to become a “good man” is to surround yourself and only learn about life from women. That could not be further from the truth, but the argument and complaints are out there..