In the ’90s, Mike Mills (“Beginners”) was directing music videos for sensations like Air, Yoko Ono and Moby. These videos had a particular twang about them that stand out from their contemporaries, telling stories of their own through lo-fi production and eye-catching cinematography. Eventually expanding his skills over the next decade to major motion pictures, he maintained a distinct style. Mills’s “20th Century Women” has proven that he’s a name to remember for years to come.
“20th Century Women” dares to explore entire lifetimes of multiple characters in 120 minutes. It is ambitious but maintains a humble undertone that makes the movie as believable as any can possibly be. Legendary actress Annette Benning (“The Kids Are All Right”) stars as Dorothea, a self assured single mother in Santa Barbara. Worried about her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, “Sinister 2”) and his development through his teen years, she seeks help. Dorothea asks Jamie’s friend —and lifelong crush— Julie (Elle Fanning, “Trumbo”) and cancer-battling housemate Abbie (Greta Gerwig, “Frances Ha”) to teach her son how to be a man, since Jamie has always lacked a father figure. Billy Crudup (“Jackie”) stars as William, another houseguest responsible for refurbishing the family’s home along with providing added warmth.
With “20th Century Women,” Benning has solidified her position as one of the best living actresses. Dorothy is one of the most loveable, developed and empathetic characters seen on screen in years, and no one else could have provided such a believable performance.
The movie, which takes place in 1979, is a time capsule that captures the sounds and ideas that occupied young minds during that time. With an impressive soundtrack that features Black Flag and Talking Heads, “20th Century Women” is a leap back to a post-Nixon era of American insecurity. Abbie introduces Jamie to feminist literature and punk music, acting as the older sister he never had. Through this, Jamie grows before the viewer’s eyes. Their beautiful relationship represents regret and individuality. Abbie advises Jamie on what not to do based on the decisions she wished she had avoided.
The complex relationships between each character are what makes the movie so moving and expresses its most charming elements. William and Dorothea’s friendship develops both characters symbiotically, exposing their histories with love, sacrifice and heartbreak. However, it is the honest depiction of a mother-son relationship between Jamie and Dorothea that is the most heartfelt. As both characters try to figure each other out, they learn that doing so is an impossible task. The generational divide is seen here, though without the feeling that any one age group is better or worse.
Although California is an overused movie location, “20th Century Women” shows it as if it’s never been on screen before. From shots following Jamie on a skateboard to scenes along the stunning Pacific Coast Highway, California feels like a progressive thinking, geographically gorgeous utopia. Which, it might have been at one time before the drought and shocking costs of living.
The women in the movie define themselves independently of any man. Set during the peak of the sexual revolution, “20th Century Women” characterizes love as a multifaceted, intangible thing that, when felt, is gut-wrenching and euphoric.
The film is maybe the most understated movie about human existence. With narration that gives details to each character’s past and future, the movie explores just about every emotion that can be felt. From love to passionless sex, “20th Century Women” shatters the heart and rebuilds it stronger than before.