By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
As Mike Mills’s life experiences inspired his second film Beginners, such is the case with 20th Century Women, a movie which nearly serves as a spiritual predecessor to the director’s sophomore feature. Mills’s films certainly reflect a fascinating, not-so-traditional life that I’m sure caused him more confusion and frustration as a child and teen, but one that has enriched him as an artist because of it. Mills has a wonderful sensibility for developing true-to-life characters, creating genuine, and not contrived drama, and flavoring everything with a natural sense of humor, especially in his often entertaining dialogue. Mills is unquestionably one of the more gifted writer/directors working in film today and 20th Century Women is further evidence of this.
The year is 1979, and single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) struggles to connect with her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Having divorced from Jamie’s father several years prior, Dorothea feels like an inadequate parent who can only offer her free-spirited brand of maternal love and not a masculine influence she thinks he needs. Afraid to smother Jamie, Dorothea seeks the help of her younger tenants Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup) to whom she rents space in her large home to help make ends meet. Dorothea also consults the help of Jamie’s best friend and crush Julie (Elle Fanning), a teen with some intimacy issues of her own. Despite the lack of a present father figure, Jamie’s life is enriched by the dynamic personalities of these women and man in his life. Abbie, the rebellious punk artist, introduces Jamie to music, art and feminism and he learns much from her this and her personal crises, as well as the issues and behavior of everyone else close to him.
Writer/director Mike Mills has made a truly remarkable film, full of heart, humor, and wisdom. Mills present life realistically with no easy answers and no overtly sappy happy endings, yet concludes his film in a most satisfying way. These richly developed characters represent real people who affected Mills life and the writing for each and every one of them is exceptional. Mills and his crew also offer outstanding work immersing the audience in the era of 1979 naturally as if this movie were a time capsule from that year.
In addition to the excellent writing and direction, cast of the film deliver superb performances with not one weak link in the ensemble. Young actor Lucas Jade Zumann (Sense8, Sinister 2) performs wonderfully as Jamie, a confused, frustrated, slightly rebellious, but intelligent teen whose inquisitive nature welcomes the knowledge and life input that his adult friends/family members can offer him. Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon, Maleficent) is also great as Julie, the caring, but sometimes withdrawn friend who’s probably even more lost and confused than Jamie. Greta Gerwig abandons her usual awkward and neurotic, go-to character and brings a fiery zeal and energy to the punk-flavored artist Abbie. Billy Crudup offers a sweet and vulnerable performance as the house tenant and handyman William, a man who suffers from relationship commitment issues. Finally, but definitely not least, Annette Bening performs beautifully as the earthy, awkward, but deeply caring mother of Jamie and the house Dorothea. It is one of her finest performances ever and she certainly deserves all of the nominations she has received for this role.
The same goes for this movie. It is one of my top-rated movies of the year and deserves all of the nominations and attention during this awards season. So far, I feel this film is Mike Mills’s best so far (with Beginners as a close second), and I am very much looking forward to what he has planned next. As much as I enjoy his very personally-inspired films, I would also love to see him do something completely different.