Film Reviews

20th Century Women Mike Mills

Rating - 8/10
Mike Mills' lovingly detailed dramedy 20th Century Women may tread familiar territory in terms of its coming-of-age narrative that's been poured over countless times; yet, its bright, expansive scope and attentive, erudite ear define the complex relationships of a non-traditional family in 1979 Santa Barbara, California, as a remedy to watered-down female characterizations typically relegated to ancillary plots and the creeping male gaze. Despite the man in the director's chair, the film unironically yields to the composure of its two female producers, editor, and multi-generational cast of predominant women in a love letter to his mother and sort of reconstruction of Mills' own childhood experiences, a logical continuation of the first-person fatherly affairs in his last effort, Beginners (2010).
The foci of the film also serendiptiously resemble the interwoven narrative about the modern personal and professional struggles in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women (2016), as if Mills' vision is a thirty-seven-year retroactive chronicle. But while the title 20th Century Women may initially promise a film somehow exclusive and all-encompassing, it quickly favors a coexistence of voices in the family life and bond between progressive fifty-five-year-old mother Dorothea Fields (the hyper-conscious Annette Bening) and her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Steadily, it evolves into something even more inclusive in terms of gender and community that punctuates the mother-son's forty-year age gap.
In Dorothea's prevailing point of view, which radiates the dichotomous energy of determination and loneliness, she becomes struck with inadequacy in a world whose behavior seems increasingly arbitrary and alien with its burgeoning punk movement and social chaos. In the aftermath of a life-threatening incident, Dorothea is compelled to recruit two younger women, anarchic twenty-four-year-old feminist and current lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie's precocious but troubled platonic friend Julie (Elle Fanning), two years his senior, to help mold him into a "good man." With this simple premise, Mills riffs on the age-old proverb that it takes a "village to raise a child" with a small cast of headstrong women. The additional twist is that Jamie already exhibits a perfectly normal curiosity from their natural input; she just feels the need to formally intervene. And while her existential crises could be established as a direct line to her status as a single mother, the film avoids condescending to her, adhering to an overarching sanguine psychology of her proven perseverance.
The subtle tonal sway is the most impressive achievement in Mills' emotionally genuine screenplay, which generously offers intelligently sketched series of tête-à-têtes and imaginative Wes Anderson-like voiceover recollections. They foster greater intimacy with not only the characters as individuals but in the grander unity of relationships. The film's manipulated visuals in transitional sequences, kissed with chromatic fast-motion blur, are further padded with twinkling Air-inspired ambient synth music from Roger Neill, collectively augmenting an unshakable wistfulness that permeates even the most carefree jaunt up or down the Coast. Photographic slideshows additionally fill the contours of the frame to not only relay the truth of identity and depth of Abbie's passionate hobby but to demonstrate the tragedy in trying to reach the everlasting through pop cultural impermanence.
What sustains, though, is the emphasis on the traits and compassion that will give purpose to Jamie's conscientious development. But 20th Century Women never settles on that as an endpoint, and instead continues to shift between the perspectives of the women through an enriching spectrum. Whether it's insight into Julie's admission that strength is a man's most purposeful quality or it's contained in the anthology of writings in Abbie's copy of Sisterhood is Powerful (1970), these liberating reflections of personality and resilience are as poignant as they are warmly amusing. While boisterous moments are often tracked to the sounds of punk and post-punk music of the era, including a cherished vinyl comparison of early Black Flag and Talking Heads, the film's hushed heart in Julie's secret late-night climbs into Jamie's second-story room, Sam Anders style, prove to be as captivating as any dynamic dance. Mills' love for language spills into his decade-encapsulating inclusion of Carter's 'Crisis of Confidence' speech in July '79, which now echoes in the twenty-first century of bitter divisiveness and misinformation. Beyond mere nostalgia, there's true comfort to be found within the film's timeline of welling humanity.