The latest film from writer-director Mike Mills, 20th Century Women, goes deep into the lives of its characters in its exploration of generational divide with its unusual characters in late ‘70s Santa Barbara. Their pasts and future collide in the film’s unique presentation, taking the audience into the events and scenarios that have shaped these disparate people. Presented with cinematic verve and lively sense of humor, 20th Century Women is an absolute delight of a movie, one that wraps you into this little corner of life in tumultuous time of transition in America while exploring its themes of masculinity through a feminist lens.
Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) live together in their home in Santa Barbara, California. When we first encounter them, the family car is engulfed in flames in the parking lot of their local supermarket. The car that Dorothea drove home in after having her lone child smolders and is now rendered entirely an object of the past. Dorothea rents out two rooms of her house, one to Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk rocker with an interest in art and photography, and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman that excels and repairing cars. Jamie, meanwhile, enjoys skateboarding and has an awkward relationship with Julie (Elle Fanning), a rebellious young woman who doesn’t reciprocate the romantic interest of Jamie. As mothers do, Dorothea is concerned about how Jamie is growing up without a father figure and recruits Abbie and Julie to help guide Jamie into manhood, though eventually Dorothea isn’t entirely sure that the lessons they teach her son are the right ones.
The heart and soul of 20th Century Women is the stellar performance by Annette Bening. As the smart, crafty woman who entered motherhood at the age of 40, Bening gives what may very well be the finest performance of her career. She is at once an eccentric character, one that has no issues inviting random strangers that she just met over to the house for dinner, but also a character that can be extremely introverted with her feelings despite that openness she extends. With ease Bening balances the drama and comedy of 20th Century Women in a consistently scene stealing performance that can garner a laugh with a subtle expression or bring a tear to your eyes with a verbalized sense of heartbreak. It’s a powerhouse performance overflowing with memorable aspects. I mean, if you see just one movie this year where Annette Bening listens to Black Flag, make sure that movie is 20th Century Women.
The rest of the cast of 20th Century Women are also excellent, merely overshadowed by the excellence of Bening’s performance. Young Lucas Jade Zumann captures that youthful sense of unease, of a young person still uneasy in their own skin in playing Jamie. He’s a character still trying to figure out what literature he likes, what music he likes, and worst of all, how to be honest with Julie about his feelings for her. Elle Fanning as Julie brings a rough exterior the rebellious young woman, a hard knocks sensibility that runs contra to her youthful visage. The awkward relationship that remains unsettled between Jamie and Julie is one that is heartbreaking on one end and entirely futile on another.
Mike Mills and cinematographer Sean Porter have also crafted a film that is a delight to peer upon. It’s an overtly garish type of period piece, the costumes and settings aren’t a distracting form of visual nostalgia. 20th Century Women uses classic photographs and archival footage to flavor its beautiful cinematography and underscore its thematic exploration of generational divide, this is particularly exemplified in the film’s excellent use of Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. What’s most impressive about 20th Century Women’s visual style is the manner with which Mike Mills employs editing and time lapse techniques that can give moments a dream-like quality, like a wistful and colorful memory brought back to life.
20th Century Women also boasts one of the best soundtracks of recent memory. The film features multiple songs from the Talking Heads as well as other great acts like the Clash in a loving homage to the heyday of punk. Greta Gerwig’s Abbie is instrumental in crafting the tastes of young Jamie, and the actress brings a wide-eyed enthusiasm to the role. The film also hits on the absurd territorial nature that runs through a subculture like punk rock with Jamie getting into fights with his peers over differences between Black Flag and the Talking Heads, a futile fight that has persisted over decades. As with everything in 20th Century Women, there’s an energy and poignancy that goes into the film’s examination of music as an identity, and Mike Mills is at once able to craft moments that are reverential and critical of the punk rock movement and the rising tide of the Reagan Years that will undermine it all.
Undoubtedly one of the best films of 2016, 20th Century Women is a movie that balances its visual beauty with an intellectual and emotional honesty. The film is overflowing with memorable characters that don’t feel like they were the product of imagination as much as they’re just a slice of life. I don’t know how much of 20th Century Women is Mike Mills dabbling in autobiography and it doesn’t matter because he’s crafted a movie that earnest in its look at how generations diverge and blend together. The film is injected with a feminist look at what masculinity means but never approaches being preachy or heavy-handed. 20th Century Women taps into a bygone time and place to bring forth a bubbling experience that is a celebration of life and the changes we’re constantly undergoing on the winding road of uncertainty. This is a movie that will have you leaving the theater with a smile and whistling “As Time Goes By.”