Directed By: Mike Mills
Written By: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Speaking in a Q and A in 1995, Roger Ebert pined for more movies that used dialogue for the sole purpose of being pleasurable to the ear, dialogue that sought simply to be interesting and insightful, rather than serving purposes strictly pertaining to the advancement of storylines. Undeniably barren in plot, but rich in character and interaction, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is the sort of film Mr. Ebert might have once upon a time clamoured for— tirelessly intriguing to listen to, endlessly engaging to watch, and compulsively watchable.
Within his screenplay, Mike Mills has crafted a way of speaking that is as arresting and cinematic as it is perceptive and true. 20th Century Women mightn’t have the verite-like candidness of Altman’s Nashville or the looseness of Linklater’s Boyhood, it’s more affected than those seminal humanist odysseys, chiefly defined by a brazen wit and saturation of larger than life personalities as it is. But a sense of honesty still persists, a documentarian quality that insists these people in spite of their eccentricities, were real.
The film is essentially a photo album come to life. It’s set in 1979 Santa Barbara, with Vietnam and Nixon freshly in the rear view and a cultural makeover at the forefront. 55 years old and divorced, Dorothea (a luminous Annette Bening) runs a boarding house and finds herself at a disconnect with the shifting American landscape; following Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, Dorothea remarks on the beauty of what the President has said, the others in the room remark on how screwed he is. She’s humorous, free-spirited, affectionate, yet somewhat jaded and unwilling towards the new world. When she hears punk rock for the first time she wonders, “can’t things just be pretty?” She won’t go with a man that isn’t “safe”, in spite of how attracted she may be to the unsafe alternatives (not particularly indicative of the sexual liberality of the period she finds herself in), and she maintains smoking is ok for her because it was ok when she started, regardless of how the subsequent years may have rewritten that science.
Her most pressing disconnect is with her adolescent son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a fifteen-year-old who skate boards, thinks about sex and wears Talking Heads t-shirts. Jamie’s grown tired of his mother’s watchful eye, alienated by her being very much a product of her time; “she grew up during the depression”—a refrain of Jamie’s as he rationalises the divide between them.
Does it take a man to raise a man? Dorothea believes not. In the absence of a father figure, she enlists two young women who might better meet Jamie at eye level. One is a tenant of the boarding house named Abby (Greta Gerwig), a photographer in her mid-twenties and a snapshot of the 70s’ countercultural youth. She has short, messy hair inked red, a feminist streak, and is an aficionado of the antiestablishment, underground rock scene, frenetically dancing to its music to purge herself of her anger; “age is a bourgeois construct”, a line she feeds Jamie as he nervously mingles at one such club. Like Dorothea however, there is great fear and anguish within Abby. She worries that Santa Barbara is a dead end, and her battle with cervical cancer has driven her from her prior life in New York.
Julie (Elle Fanning) is the other enlistee, a seventeen-year-old who sneaks into Jamie’s room at night and platonically snuggles with him in bed. She is the trickiest of the characters to pin down, the least sure of what she wants from the world. Jamie, close to Julie, evidently wishes for something more than platonic, but Julie prefers sex be an emotionally distant exercise, engaging in it more out of curiosity than lust or love. She’s spiky, harbouring her own mother related hardships, however she’s also socially attuned; she teaches Jamie how to look cool and swagger and give the illusion of disaffection in his posture.
Mills’ characterisations are fine stroked and meticulous. 20th Century Women may be plotless, but never pointless, the eponymous characters and the teenager they endeavour to guide into manhood, so fully drawn with each inhabiting a different spectrum of the time in which they live, that they transcend the role of mere narrative devices and become vehicles for exploring life’s most curious corners. From a series of seemingly unrelated dialogues spawn sprawling meditations on ageing, parenthood, loneliness, sex, art, and perhaps most crucially, time and place, the greatest agents in moulding us each.
The themes are bold and broad, but Mills’ exploration of them is steeped in specificity, drawing, as he did with Beginners, from his own backstory. It’s evident that having this personal catalogue of experiences to borrow from is of great profit to 20th Century Women, breeding the film’s exceedingly rich period detail. Whether Mills’ re-visitation of his past is in an effort to recapture the time or a fruitless attempt to rewrite it, is less evident. Roger Neill’s delicate, synth driven score suggests both, its soothing yet weary tone at once nostalgic and elegiac.
The performances are each effective. Gerwig is a beacon of magnetism– energetic, off-beat and constantly surprising as Abby. More understated, Zumann and Fanning are by equal measure discontent and colourful. Annette Bening is the film’s heart however, tremendous in her rendering of the contradictions that plague Dorothea—loving but distant with her son, un-constrained but closed-minded, intelligent but unsure, surrounded but lonely. Bening brings a sort of jagged friendliness to Dorothea, a lukewarm personality that’s rigid yet amicable, and always engaging.
The final piece of the puzzle is Billy Crudup’s William, also a boarding house tenant and the sole, albeit innocuous, male presence in Jamie’s eyeline. William is a forty something mechanic and handyman, soft spoken but assured, and always self-sufficient, a last breath emblem of the free-wheeling 60s’ hippie culture. He loves pottery, makes his own shampoo, meditates, but like each of the film’s characters, is missing something at his core. His is clear—a companion. It’s a void he temporarily plugs with one night stands and lustful female suitors, but nothing ever emotionally satiating. William thus completes the chain of characters who are apparently strong, yet wounded at heart.
20th Century Women will likely be a strain for some, its philosophising and meandering verging on pretension. I was struck by the film’s cheeky but thought-provoking language however, by its characters—all so individual and full, by its authenticity. The film’s overarching wonder is the malleability of its empathies, the quality which underlines its rich dialogue and engaging characters. Mills pivots from a 55 year old divorcee; to a bohemian, punky photographer; to a hormonal adolescent boy; to an addled teenage girl; to a lost, ageing hippie, adopting each unique worldview with a truthfulness and understanding that snaps the director’s personal photo album into a touching, universal play. It’s a film built on verisimilitude, rather than action or melodrama, and the results are eternally mesmerising .