Written by Matt Taylor
While the indie movie crowd may have fell for it back in 2011, Mike Mills’ Beginners rubbed me the wrong way. The concept behind it, a man dealing with both his father’s cancer diagnosis and admission that he’s gay, was original and interesting, but the film fell prey to its abundance of quirky clichés. This eventually made the movie stop feeling original. So, I approached 20th Century Women with a sense of apprehension. Luckily, my fears were quickly assuaged.
This time around, Mike Mills flips the gender of the protagonist’s parent and sets his movie a few decades in the past. In 20th Century Women, 15-year-old Jamie begins to reflect on his relationship with his mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning), a single woman who constantly surrounds herself with friends (and even sometimes kind strangers), but still seems lonely. As Jamie worries that his mom is unhappy with her life, Dorothea starts to fear that her son is unsure of himself as a young man due to the lack of a masculine figure in his life. So, she enlists the help of Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), and the punk rock obsessed 20-something Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who rents out a room upstairs to teach him about life, and what it means to be an American man in 1979.
Instead of quirks this time around, Mills relies on his beautifully realistic characters and the two compelling narratives to keep the audience interested. Both Jamie and Dorothea narrate the film, but the narration never feels like its explaining subject matter that a better writer could have shown through action. Instead, the narration comes off as beautiful prose, fleshing out both characters, and the themes to become more complex. The way the film explores gender is also fascinating. As Dorothea tries to explain masculinity to her son, he ends up receiving a crash course in what it’s like being a woman, and how societal norms have limited the outlets they have to express their thoughts. It’d be easy (and fair) to call 20th Century Women a feminist film, but doing so almost feels simplistic. It’s really a film that simply depicts women as complex, fully developed characters – an act which, unfortunately, is all too rare in modern cinema.
But this should not suggest that the film is too serious, or comes off as a lecture on gender studies. No, this film is actually quite funny, and hugely lovable. While Mills might rely a bit too heavily on classic coming of age tropes, they’re played out so passionately that you can almost forgive the familiarity. The film also manages to feel nostalgic, but not overly reliant on its period setting. Instead, Mills recreates the whole experience of being a teenager, regardless of the decade, making it feel shockingly timeless. Since Mills attempts to depict both the male and female experience, most viewers will be able to relate to the characters on some level.
I’d also be remised not to mention the phenomenal ensemble that helps 20th Century Women work as well as it does. Annette Benning delivers another funny, completely lived in performance as Dorothea. She inhabits her character so well that you can’t even draw comparisons between her work here and in other, similar films. She makes her protagonist feel wholly original. This also showcases Elle Fanning at her most mature, and possibly most natural. The perpetually undervalued Billy Crudup also does nice work as a potential role model for Jamie.
Meanwhile, as Jamie, newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann displays a confidence and naturalism not typically found in young actors. With only one other film credit to his name, this serves as a preview of what we can expect from the promising newcomer. The real scene-stealer is Greta Gerwig. The indie movie queen possibly gives her most reserved performance so far, creating a complicated, but consistently likable character in Abby. Her work here is funny, which is to be expected from Gerwig. She really shines in the more serious moments though, whether she’s awkwardly trying to be intimate with a man, or dealing with a painful medical diagnosis.
20th Century Women is that rare sort of film that radiates happiness, probably because of how warm hearted and kind it is. Characters are complicated, but completely likable. The film manages to absorb the audience’s attention without relying on overdramatic plot devices. Mike Mills’ script, and the cast he tasked with performing it, helps make his latest film one of 2016’s best.
Overall Rating: 8 out of 10