20th Century Women feels like a hug, a hug that comes at you out of joy and only wants to make you happier, letting you know the pain in the world is bearable.
The film follows a mother and son, Dorothea and Jamie, and the people in their lives that are going to try to help him become a man. At least, that is what Dorothea wants. She enlists the help of Julie, Jamie’s longtime friend that he is in love with but will never have her, and Abbie, a feminist who knows her music and is recovering from cervical cancer. Dorothea’s approach is less than orthodox, but these are the only constants in her life at the moment. Jamie is skeptical, to say the least, but the growth and realizations everyone goes through over the course of the film is more than a worthy journey.
Mike Mills directs the film and it takes on a structure that is in no way conventional. Jumping in and out of flashbacks and archival footage, this picture tells the story of generations; going as far back as the 1920’s and mentioning future events that happen well in the 2000’s. The bulk of the film is set in 1979, where Dorothea’s little experiment unfolds and everyone’s life sort of takes off from here.
Mill’s film is just so well written, by him, that you just want to move into that restored mansion and live with these five characters. I’ve only mentioned four above who inhabit the home, but the fifth is another man, William, who is super chill and too boring to get roped into helping Jamie. Plus, Dorothea already tried to make him Jamie’s male figure once before, didn’t stick. The five of these individuals interact with each other on varying levels and I could sit and listen to them talk for hours. Whether they are discussing the Talking Heads, trying to sleep with one another or confronting each other with the word “Menstruation”, it is all a delight.
The tone of the film is its real achievement, as it always feels alive, warm and welcoming, even when the conversations might get a bit serious. At its heart, the film is firmly a comedy and I laughed at this film as much as any other film this year. I dare you to try and wipe the smile off your face while watching this, it will be hard to do. But 20th Century Women is still sad, and hopeful, and inspiring, and fun on top of everything else that is thrown into this wonder of a film.
At the center of all of this wonder is Annette Bening as Dorothea, who gives my favorite performance of hers yet. She’s just incredible and full of life without ever needing some giant scene to prove it. She walks on to the screen fully realized and we feel like we’ve known her forever. And want to know her for even longer. Her face is just so amazing to watch, she’s doing so much and telling us so much more than Mills’ wonderful voiceovers ever could about these characters. Almost equally as good is Great Gerwig as Abbie, who sells “I just can’t figure out my fucking life” so damn well. Sure, she’s done this before, but she’s as good as she is in Frances Ha; only more raw and wounded. Though, Abbie is never helpless or weak, she’s in control, just trying to figure it all out, and Gerwig brings every emotion to that performance. Elle Fanning plays the slightly sullen Julie, and she is just as lost as Abbie, only at a high school level of drama. Jamie is her rock, and she knows how he feels about her, but she can’t cross that line that he wants to since he got horny. Fanning carries the weight of everything Julie has had to deal with in her life, but is still magnetic and sucks you in even when she has a frown on her face.
Billy Crudup plays William and he is just as good as the women in this film. Affable as one can be and a smile that could charm anyone, we also get why he’s so lost and feel his pain as he is lost out in this world with his Volkswagens. Crudup delivers every time he pops up around the house and has some of the best scenes in the film across from Gerwig and Bening. Lucas Jade Zumann plays Jamie and he holds his own against the veterans around him. He is completely believable as a fifteen year old going through what Jamie is going through and that authenticity is worth a whole lot, even if he isn’t quite the actor the others are in the film.
20th Century Women is one of 2016’s best films and features some of its best performances. Mike Mills’s has delivered yet again, along with another amazing soundtrack, and his cast & characters feel like friends you never want to forget. You should get to know them.