20th Century Women (2016)
D/W: Mike Mills. DP: Sean Porter. Starring: Annette Bening/Elle Fanning/Greta Gerwig/Lucas Jade Zumann/Billy Crudup/Alison Elliot/Thea Gill.
Amid the haze of award season some films get pushed to the sidelines. Funny, well crafted stories that cannot compete with some heavy hitters, but are far better than most large scale commercial releases you have sat through all year. This is where sits director and writer Mike Mills’ new feature, 20th Century Women.
Mills last feature was 2010’s Beginners, which won Christopher Plummer his Oscar for best supporting actor. 20th Century Women is a similar scale of story, small and intimate. Focused on character arcs that ebb and flow like time. The film orbits around the coming of age of Californian teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as well as his single mother Dorothea’s (Annette Bening) anxiety about this process. The time period is 1979. This setting is repeatedly emphasized as Dorothea, a child of the depression, has witnessed so much change in America in just her lifetime. This contributes to her worry for Jamie and the decision to ask her 30-something border Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and his teenage best fiend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help make him into a man.
The film’s setting is repeatedly contextualized throughout by the use of flashes of images, pop culture moments, and news items. This includes a speech by then president Jimmy Carter. Much like a novel with alternating points of view, 20th Century Women also gives each character narration segment. These voice-overs act as direct to the audience perspectives that create a self-reflexive film with women at the forefront. Women’s place in time. Their place in history. Each character is infused with their own sexual politics, orbiting around Jamie’s physical and emotional discoveries (whether forced or not).
Bening carries Dorothea well, her chain smoking adaptability seems to come to a halt when Jamie becomes too old to share. Her performance of parental growing pains is well balanced between frenzied impulse and calm authority. She is the thrust of the emotional core of the story and helps connect the anecdotal quality of the film. Fanning is ever the usual blushing darling on screen. Once she ages out of these teenage roles she will be unstoppable (see Neon Demon now). Gerwig holds her own, but is often out shadowed by brilliant Crudup. His handlebar mustache and relaxed energy hide a brooding performance hidden in the house. Newcomer Zumann holds his own. Yet he will have steep shoes to fill when he is next seen as Gilbert Blythe in Netflix’s new series Anne, based on LM Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables.
Mill’s script was inspired by his own single, older mother. His clear handle on the time period and the unique self-reflective quality of the script probably led to his Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. We shall see at the end of the month how the votes come in.