Mike Mills is one of the more fascinating independent filmmakers working today, and I base this on only three films, which are also the only three narrative films he has made. Many know him from his 2011 comedy-drama, Beginners, that brought out an absolutely exquisite performance from the legendary Christopher Plummer. However, I first took notice of Mills’ as a filmmaker when I stumbled onto his 2005 feature film debut, Thumbsucker, that featured two of my favorite performances of that year, that of Lou Pucci, who I am shocked didn’t become a bigger star, and the role of his mother Audrey, played by the world’s greatest performer, Tilda Swinton. Beginners was a good film, but it was only the humble and quirky attitude of Thumbsucker that captivated me. Mills returned with his third narrative feature last year, 20th Century Women, which isn’t only Mills’ personal best film, it is one of the best films of the year.
20th Century Women is set in 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, and revolves around Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a 55-year-old single mother of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who she feels somewhat detached from. A little accident where Jamie almost kills himself prompts Dorothea to try and reconnect with her son and give him a brighter future – so she enlists the help of two other ladies – Jamie’s best friend and object of his affections, Julie Hamlin (Elle Fanning), and Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), a punk lover and photography aficionado who is a tenant of Dorothea’s. Together, the trio form the titular group of twentieth century women, occupying different generations, and working towards giving the naive and somewhat lost Jamie a sense of understanding of life and ensure that he leads an honest and fulfilling life.
20th Century Women is an autobiographical film, much like Beginners. Instead of focusing on the story of his father, who at the age of 75, came out as gay, 20th Century Women focuses on Mills’ mother, a free-spirited, idiosyncratic and fiercely intelligent individual who loved her son, but in ways that may not be conventional, but no less affectionate. Part of what I loved about 20th Century Women is how it forms a very unconventional bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that doesn’t quite fit the shape of other previously similar works of film or literature. There is just something so…socialistic about this film. So many coming-of-age stories involve one or two people helping the protagonist reach maturity, but 20th Century Women focuses instead on a group of people that all band together to help the main character, not only become an adult, but become a fully-functional, fulfilled adult that will live a good life and make a better future for his children by being a good person himself. There is that old African proverb that is so well-known and used so often, “it takes a village to raise a child” – and if 20th Century Women has any message, it is that it also takes a village to help raise an adult.
Now of course this may appear, from this description, to be an utterly dull and mundane experience – because based only on this loose description of the story, one wouldn’t be judged for thinking that it is completely uninteresting to just see a group of women raise a teenager and teach him lessons about life. That is the story – but that’s only the skeleton of 20th Century Women, because there is so much in this film that makes it so extraordinary, and to just isolate only one of these aspects will show how 20th Century Women is by far a better film than the loose description of the story would offer.
First of all, the performances in 20th Century Women are incredible. I know I keep saying that independent films depend on their performers, but luckily indie cinema has lured many high-profile actors to it, and resulted in well-known performers being given roles sometimes unlike anything they have played before, and give performances previously unknown to us to be in their capabilities. Annette Bening has been no stranger to independent films, and in 20th Century Women, she perhaps gives her very best performance (other than her devastating work in The Kids are All Right).
Her work as Dorothea Fields proves why Bening is one of the greatest actresses of her generation – she juggles the comedic and lighthearted tone of the character, along with the devastatingly emotional weight that she has to convey throughout. Dorothea is a complex character – she is optimistic and lives in the moment and has successfully held onto her youth her whole life, but she is also someone who is watching her son slowly slip away from her, because he is entering into the part of his life where he doesn’t need to be dependent on his mother. Bening brings such interesting perspective to the character, and also that she had a great understanding of Mills’ actual mother, as her portrayal is fragile and delicate and beautifully composed. She is absolutely incredible, and with the exception of the transcendent Isabelle Huppert, Bening gives the best female performance of the year.
The other half of what makes 20th Century Women so special is the other lead performance. Lucas Jade Zumann doesn’t give the complex and overly showy performance that Bening does, but he is layered and interesting as well. His performance as Jamie is a true breakout role, and he does so well with the very sensitive duty of showing him as a normal teenager – so many teenagers in films come off as dreadfully artificial and false, and he needed to tread the line carefully, because if he was too subdued, he’d just come off as an emotionally dead character, and it would have become so difficult to connect with him had he not been somewhat likable. It was a tough job, but Zumann did incredibly well.
Elle Fanning is one of the best young actresses working today, and unlike her sister Dakota, Fanning has found a place in these slightly older and more developed characters (as much as Dakota Fanning is a beloved actress, she will always be seen as a child star, whereas Elle is forming a place for herself as a young adult in the industry, through her constant tenacity in choosing interesting and complex films such as 20th Century Women, The Neon Demon and the upcoming remake of The Beguiled, amongst others). 20th Century Women gives Fanning an extraordinarily fascinating character to work with, and she is emotionally mature and just so wonderfully resonant in the role. Far from being the archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she is by far the most mysterious character in the film, and also the one with the most heartbreakingly sad resolution at the end.
Now if we are talking about American independent cinema, we can’t avoid talking about the current It-Girl of the movement. Greta Gerwig made a name for herself in the film Frances Ha, but unfortunately came to be always associated with these overly intelligent and socially awkward young women in New York-based dramedies, along with Mistress America and Maggie’s Plan. I am delighted, however, to see that she actually became a lot more versatile this year, because not only did she try straightforward dramatic work in Jackie, 20th Century Women allowed her to both be in the region of indie cinema where she is clearly the most comfortable, but also afforded her the opportunity to stretch herself as an actress. While her performance as Abbie does have some elements of her quirky and socially distant persona that she has shown in so many films, for the most part it is radically different and proves that Gerwig is a far better actress than we thought, and that she actually has a future in bigger films and more complex roles.
The best part of films taking part in different eras of the twentieth century is that there is often a particularly meticulous amount of attention placed on the music. Now being someone who absolutely adores punk and new wave music, 20th Century Women plays right into the kind of nostalgia I wish I had for the Seventies. The use of Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and other musicians, along with references to Lou Reed, Devo and others, was just sublime. It actually made me love 20th Century Women even more, because the choice of music just fit this film perfectly, and added to that, 20th Century Women has a beautiful score composed by Roger Neill that highlight the uncertainty and surrealism of life.
Finally, 20th Century Women does something else very well. So many indie films rely on performances, and the films themselves are sometimes visually lacking. 20th Century Women pays so much attention to getting the washed-out, calming look of Seventies nostalgia, and juxtaposing it with some seriously incredible cinematography, the film is beautiful to look it. It may not be visually stunning, but it so extraordinarily composed, and the surrealism of some scenes, where it turns somewhat psychedelic visually, is a lovely touch and makes 20th Century Women just that much more wonderful.
20th Century Women is a wonderful film, but it won’t appeal to everyone. It is small and unassuming and doesn’t have any huge social message other than trying to display the difficulty of growing up. Mills does an extraordinary job of taking his own story and translating it into a film that is entertaining and beautifully made, and casting it with actors that do such a superb job of bringing the story to life, it makes 20th Century Women a very special film and undoubtedly one of the very best of the year. It may not be widely seen, but it is certainly a film that will make you feel something, and it is just an exceptional little film with an important, deep meaning – just make the best of your life, and be a good person – and none of us know what the future holds – so its best to just let it happen, and go along for the ride.