Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Mike Mills
Stars: Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Annette Benning, Billy Crudup, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann
Released: February 10th, 2017
Time is fleeting. This is a phrase heard countless times throughout our youth and throughout our life as a reminder to cherish the days we’re living in as they’ll be gone before we realize it. What we never realize though, is just how fleeting such times are when we’re actually in them. The young man at the center of 20th Century Women, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), was born in 1964 with the film opening in 1979. This makes Jamie a young fifteen as made even more apparent by his clear skin and boyish features that render him still a child in our minds rather than the adult he would have us believe he is becoming. My own father was born in 1964 and I can’t say I’ve ever considered what the world looked like at the time of his most formative years. Hell, I don’t know that I ever even realized it was the fall of 1980 when he turned sixteen-with only six years to go until he married my mother on the cusp of his twenty-second birthday. Sure, I’ve heard him tell stories of the things he did as a young boy with his older brother and neighborhood friends, but never did I take a minute to step back and look at the bigger picture; really consider the world they were living in at that time. With 20th Century Women writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners) explores these small, fleeting moments in time and reflects on what made what is presumed to be his mother, his mother. This isn’t simply presented by the circumstances of her life, but by the circumstances of the time in which she was born. This is a fascinating way of perceiving things, but can also be rather dangerous considering the infinite possibilities one can imagine were they to consider who they or someone they know/love might have been were they born in a different time. This framing of lives through fleeting moments with the added perception of where each of the individuals chronicled came from and where they’re going reveals a lot of truths, but mostly it works best by affirming what we don’t always have enough time to acknowledge-that happiness comes most naturally when we’re not actively trying to chase it.
I mention this slight insight concerning my own father in relation to this film about the director’s mother due to this idea that Mills essentially wraps his latest film in-that being that what we see isn’t always how it was. That we, the current children, only see a portion of who our parents are and were as people and vice versa. I can imagine what type of kid my dad was when he was fifteen years younger than I am now, but it’s difficult and the same goes for him in imagining his now thirty year-old son as a functioning adult in society. He knows the facts, but he’ll never fully see and how I am in my day to day. With 20th Century Women Mills is exploring such dynamics while hoping to give his mother the credit she is due by taking into account the facets he likely didn’t when he was fifteen. Through this introspection and elevated awareness Mills introduces us to Dorothea (Annette Bening), a woman who was born in 1924, grew up during the great depression in sad houses, when people drove sad cars, and the entirety of the neighborhood raised the children. She is divorced from a husband she barely misses and has a teenage son at fifty-five. That son, born in 1964, has grown up being raised solely by his mother and now, as he enters these years where he grows into his own, Dorothea is having trouble admitting, coming to terms with, and/or simply dealing with the fact that she may not have been enough to fully prepare her son for a world and future she doesn’t fully understand. In attempting to make up for the absence of a man in her sons life she enlists the help of current tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer seeking refuge from the real world who realizes she’d become somewhat lost in realizing her life is never going to turn out the way she always hoped it would. Also living with Dorothea and Jamie is William (Billy Crudup), a mechanic who is also refurbishing part of the house, who Jamie’s mother hopes will become an indelible presence on him, but the two are less than nothing alike. Jamie prefers to spend time with Julie (Elle Fanning) who he’d like to become more than friends with, but Julie keeps Jamie just out of arms reach so as to not ruin their friendship. It’s a layered situation and understandably confusing and frustrating for the adolescent male who wants little more than to listen to music and have sex with the girl he likes, but who can’t help but to think critically about each situation due to the nurturing he consistently receives.
What makes 20th Century Women so damn good is the effortless flow it carries with it through every scene. Every individual segment isn’t necessarily telling a plot-driven story, but is fascinating in its own right because it understands itself to an extent that it is confident in the fact the audience will find it compelling. It’s not trying to be a certain way or a certain type of thing-it simply is and that is both captivating and extremely telling. When a writer/director wants to say something specific or convey certain ideas it is difficult to resist the temptation of putting a character on a soapbox and letting them go through a monologue about all of the things the artist behind the material wishes to address. It is difficult to write to show things rather than just tell the audience what it is you want them to perceive and get out of the material, but of course-if one can accomplish this it typically means the writing is good. In 20th Century Women the writing is good. This is quite an accomplishment given large portions of the film are people in rooms talking about their feelings. None of it ever feels false though. The airy soundtrack and the pastel color palette among other factors all combine to create this effect of a laid back atmosphere where people are occupied by their philosophies as much as they are going out and living those philosophies. These light colors and this transparent aesthetic create a dream-like world of the late 1970’s-almost as if what we’re seeing are the memories Mills has of the period, how he specifically remembers this time in his life, rather than what might be a more accurate depiction. This doesn’t matter as we are sucked into this dream realm of a time when punk was on the precipitous of death, when the country was on the brink of Reagan, and it was the eve of the Internet. Jamie, and by default Mills, are representatives of the last generation that had any right to be bored-who were allowed to be bored-and through the films ability to capture the inspiration and ideas that sprung out of such boredom we in turn get something great. A reflection. A better understanding. A more complex picture with layers and meaning rather than just the snapshot these fleeting moments feel like.
Of course, anchoring all of this are the five rather wonderful performances from the ensemble cast that mesh together to form a dysfunctional commune that love to tolerate one another. At the heart of the film are Dorothea and Jamie, but it is how these three extraneous individuals come into their lives and change their expected courses that ultimately make the film both unpredictable, funny, and thrilling in the most paradoxical of ways given this is more or less a slice of life drama with little to no tension involved. 20th Century Women doesn’t need tension to stress its drama though, because it has actors who are in tune with the points Mills is trying to make. Each of these five characters are allowed their individual profiles, but more importantly is how they view one another as it is the initial perspective of who these characters are that Mills defines and then wants to move past so as to spell out without spelling the fact there’s more to those we think we know after glimpsing just a brief moment of their existence. In executing such intent, Mills opens his film by setting the car Dorothea and her husband brought Jamie home from the hospital in aflame in the parking lot of a grocery store. Of course, Jamie doesn’t hold any sentimental weight in the vehicle, but rather only views it as a piece of junk his distant father left for him and his mother to take care of. For Dorothea though, that Ford Galaxy was so much more. It wasn’t always the old car that smelled like gas and overheated all the time; it was beautiful. We’re not always old even though this is the form we are most remembered for as the majority of us die at this later stage in life when those who will attend our funerals have likely only known us for a small fraction of our lives. For Bening and Crudup especially, these performances feel like genuine efforts to define who Dorothea and William were at these stages in their lives whereas Gerwig again plays a woman in that weird transition from explorer to conqueror who is never sure quite what it is she wants to conquer. On the other side of the coin are Fanning and Zumann who encapsulate the sexual frustration and angst that was also born out of their boredom set to the sounds of David Bowie and Talking Heads. Each are fantastic representations of different head spaces cultivated from similar environments. Speaking to environments, movies have always been time capsules in and of themselves, but movies made in different decades about the past often offer a romanticized version of history. This is unequivocally true of 20th Century Women, but it’s is done with such purpose given Mills isn’t just exploring who these people were to him and what they meant in his life, but what made them who they were and what they became. 20th Century Women is an exercise to better understand what made them real.