DIR/WRI: Mike Mills • PRO: Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, Youree Henley • DOP: Sean Porter • ED: Leslie Jones • DES: Chris Jones • MUS: Roger Neill • CAST: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning
As much as I enjoy a tight narrative and a gripping story, there is something to be said for films where the look and atmosphere is almost, maybe even more, vital to their success than the tale they tell. Such is the case with writer-director Mike Mills’ latest 20th Century Women. Set predominately in 1979 Santa Barbara, the movie is a series of loosely connected scenes and vignettes – all linked by single mother Dorothea (the always stellar Annette Benning) and her attempts to teach her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), what it means to be “a good man”. After failing to find a father figure in local handy-man, William (Billy Crudrup), Dorothea enlists the help of Jamie’s friend and crush, Julie (rising starlet Elle Fanning), as well as her second-wave feminist lodger, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), in raising the boy.
While the story at the heart of 20th Century Women is lovely, what’s even more impressive is the way it’s portrayed by Mills. In a similar style to his previous feature Beginners (which earned Christopher Plummer an Oscar in 2012), the director foregoes a straight narrative in favour of creating a movie which feels almost like someone warmly re-living the vital moments of their life, a visual poem or essay about the influences – the era, the people you know, the music and literature you consume – that shape one’s identity. He dares to plunge the audience into the moment, jumping, not just through time, but also from the main story to archival footage and clips from other films. This technique causes 20th Century Women to play like an endless stream of beautiful moments, while leaving every scene feeling important to the character’s lives and deeply personal.
Personal seems to be the key word in defining Mills. His previous feature, which centred on a seventy-five-year-old man coming out as openly gay just years before his death, was based on his father. Here, the filmmaker turns his attention to his mother and the other feminine figures in his life. Perhaps it’s because all the characters are heavily based on those close to Mills, but each one feels three-dimensional. He includes minor details in Dorothea and Jamie’s duelling narration that reveal a ton of information about the personalities at the heart of the movie. For example, it mentions in passing that after reading Watership Down, Benning’s character began carving wooden rabbits. It’s only a small detail but it sets up the way Dorothea can’t analyse something without taking it to the extreme – something evident in her parenting style where she strives to understand the things which interest her child, e.g. the sounds of The Raincoats and Black Flag.
The fact that each character feels so fleshed out gives Mills’ supremely talented cast a lot of material to sink their teeth into. Annette Benning and Billy Crudrup are so naturalistic, making both the comedic moments – of which there are many – and the more poignant beats even more palpable. Greta Gerwig is her usual kooky self but is given more of an opportunity to show her impressive range than in previous work. Elle Fanning is excellent in a multi-layered role, which begins as a sex symbol/cipher but unspools into a more nuanced character study. Strangely but probably intentionally its Lucas Jade Zumann’s Jamie – the stand-in for Mills – who tends to get overshadowed by the females in his life and their stories. However, even Zumann is a deadpan delight in his few but memorable comic interactions.
It’s exciting to witness the birth of a potential new auteur. With 20th Century Women, Mills improves on the style of Beginners and appears committed to delivering highly personal tales rendered with heady kaleidoscopic beauty.
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20th Century Women is released 10th February 2017