We’re all shaped by two things: the people who raise us and the decade that inspires us. Writer/director Mike Mills has explored one side of his unique upbringing with 2010’s Beginners, the story of his closeted, cancer-ridden father and how it molded him into showing love. Now Mills is back to show how he was brought up by a mother’s love, or more so the love of many women… no, not like that, you perverts.
20th Century Women, Mills’ third film, takes place in sunny Santa Barbara, 1979. Fifteen-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his single, chainsmoking, leftist, fifty-something mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in a spacious (if not weathered) home. The mother and son share said home with laid-back handyman William (Billy Crudup) and red-haired punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), along with the occasional visit from Jamie’s crush and rebellious teen Julie (Elle Fanning). Dorothea feels as if she’s not connecting enough with Jamie, so she asks her housemates (and Julie, who often hides out in Jamie’s room even though their relationship is strictly friendly) to spread some words of wisdom to Jamie. Whether it’s dancing to Talking Heads records or seeing Jimmy Carter slap the wrist of the American people on television, Jamie and co. start learning more about themselves and where they stand in the world today.
Much like Beginners, Mills builds his characters and the story by playing with time. Throughout the film, he has his characters narrate their pasts and their futures to bookend crucial moments. The movie is actually more about everyone else than Jamie, since each character practically fills up Jamie’s character himself. Abbie inspires exploration, Julie fuels Jamie’s sex drive, and William reminds Jamie to be kind. Dorothea acts as Jamie’s mirror, someone as confused and lost in the modern world as he is. Mills and cinematographer Sean Porter occasionally throw in some glowing ’70s sheen to the film, but it’s Mills’s usual stripped down style. He keeps his shots composed and isn’t trying for anything fancy. His film is gorgeous (and backed by a killer soundtrack, mind you), but very simple.
Its charm comes entirely from its characters, and the stellar actors behind them. Leading it all is Bening in another ace performance. Sharp, witty and still emotionally resounding, Bening is fantastic as the lead. There’s a genuine warmth and love behind her pessimism (“Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed”). Her tender moments with Zumann (also a solid performance) and the rest of the class don’t feel forced in the slightest. Fanning continues her run of “I’m an adult” performances in 2016 (The Neon Demon, Live by Night), but it’s more than just promiscuity that gets her by. She’s as game to the witty dialogue and droll humor as everyone else, with hints of truly tender moments to her character. The real star, however, is Gerwig in her most emotionally resonate performance yet. She feels like an old soul in a fiery youth’s body, someone rebelling to find purpose in her future. It’s an interesting take on the typical late-’70s punk and Gerwig does it wonderfully. She still brings her exceptional dry wit to the role, but there’s a new layer of heart to her performance.
If Beginners was about starting over and rediscovering yourself in old age, then 20th Century Women is about finding yourself the first time, regardless of age. Whether you’re 15 or 55, there’s always some form of discovery to be had. Mills sees that it can be as quiet as a night looking at the stars or as raucous as dancing in a punk club. It’ll be interesting to see what Mills will do and say with his next film, now that he’s seemingly out of parental units to mold films out of. For now, it’s nice to know his fluid direction and fleshed-out writing skills can make a coming of age dramedy (something that borders on being super corny) seem so honest.