"Wondering if you're happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed."
Low-key filmmaker Mike Mills continues to mine his personal family history for rich cinematic material. Where Beginners focused on his closeted, elderly father's life as a newly out but dying gay man, 20th Century Women is loosely inspired by his middle-aged, late-in-life mother and the many women around who helped raised him as a teenager in 1979 Santa Barbara. It's a moving portrait about the redefining role of women and mothers set against the thick of the second wave feminist movement.
Annette Bening stars as the chain-smoking Dorothea, a 55-year-old single mother, raising her teenage son Jamie—played by newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, a stand-in for Mills—who recruits two other, younger women of different ages to help raise him as a strong man who understands the complexities of women and life. The aforementioned two women are Abbie played by Greta Gerwig, a cancer surviving, punk rock photographer, and Julie played by Elle Fanning, a rebellious and over-sexualized seventeen-year-old heartbreaker finding herself—who Jamie predictably falls for.
The trio show great chemistry and affection with Zumann's performance acting both emotionally sensitive yet detached as you would expect any teenage skater kid to be. Billy Crudup as William, a soulful handyman and supporting male figure, is earnest and amusing evoking his trademark Almost Famous look.
Bening is in fine form, doing some of her best work, establishing Dorethea as a woman of the Depression full of complications. Her laid-back but nuanced performance is exquisitely assured and filled with a sort of deadpan confidence and underlying sense of loneliness. Her affection for Jamie feels touching and genuine but still appropriately frustrating.
Mills crafts the film as a timeless portrait of motherly love aided with some period appropriate musical influences courtesy of Black Flag and the Talking Heads. The setting of a dreamy but sleepy California coastal city taking place after the post-punk scene and before the onslaught of the Regan era makes the film feel so quaint yet never nostalgic. It only further heightens the growing distance between mother and son during a period of generational change and transition.
Like Beginners, this film is explicitly about a son reflecting on who he thought one of his parents were while reconciling and understanding the impact they had on his life. The film barely has a plot and takes a montage approach to its storytelling using Mills' experience as a visual artist to express his characters, their thoughts, and emotions. Halfway through, things get both somehow more abstract yet simultaneously direct as anthropological narration and documentary style exposition put the story into a greater American historical context.
20th Century Women is a wonderfully constructed character drama full of rich, fully-formed female characters set in a very specific time and place. It uses the boy coming-of-age troupe to tell a thoughtful story of a young man being enriched by the women around him. Mills' most complete and mature work to date is a loving reflection of his remembered youth and maternal relationships. It's a lovely film.
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