20th Century Women tells both an expansive and personal story via three women and two guys, all of varied ages, during the waning years of the Women’s Lib era, in 1979 Santa Barbara. Writer-director Mike Mills captures both the wider social spirit of the times while closely entwining the private lives of this closely tied motley crew of strongly fleshed out characters. Buoyed by strong performances across the board, Mills’ third feature film flows at a casual pace, bobbing and weaving between heartache and irony in a manner reflective of how our minds wander through past traumas and accomplishments that inform our sense of self.
Mills touches on all the details, including pulling together a powerful soundtrack that features a dreamy, modern electronic score by Roger Neill and fringe rock music of the era and its influences. In 1979 punk rock had become more than the revolution against baby boomers’ AOR. Off shoots of new wave and no wave were cutting a divisive path from its own origins. It’s the perfect musical backdrop for the five people at the center of the film’s narrative, as they deal with tensions of their own personal growth. The old gives way to the young as the young learns what’s ahead in maturity inside a mansion fittingly undergoing renovations by hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup), a man still stuck in the ‘60s. One of the young people renting a room at the house, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a vivacious photographer and fan of punk rock, has to deal with her own mortality after undergoing a harsh procedure to treat cervical cancer. Meanwhile, the house’s owner, Dorothea (Annette Bening), puts on an air of hollow dignity as a single mother whose wisdom belies her tact. Her son Jaime (Lucas Jade Zumann) is just beginning life as a man without a father. Clueless in the art of seduction all he can do is listen when his childhood platonic friend and crush Julie (Elle Fanning) visits to talk about her sexual exploits, while they lie in his bed next to each other.
Mills packs the film with information and perspective with a mix of flashbacks interspersed into an exuberant story about personal growth. Via cues in the action, these marvelous interludes are seamlessly and casually tossed into a stream of consciousness flow of story. They are often montages of character profiles narrated by another character. For instance, Dorothea narrates a piece about Jaime as he came into her life, and in another instance, Jaime talks about Dorothea’s history before he was born. These recollected passages reveal other dimensions of the characters profiled while simultaneously informing the audience about the ties between them and the narrator’s perspective of them. As the characters often seem challenged to show love directly to one another, the interludes are key in revealing mutual, unconditional affection too heavy to speak aloud. One can’t help but notice that the choice to filter the persona of one character though another character’s narration also demonstrates the impossibility of ever truly knowing the ones closest to you.
All senses of cinema are heightened by this unique approach to storytelling. The slow zooms in and out on solitary figures featuring that amazing score by Neill are transporting cues. These scenes never call attention to themselves to feel distracting. They are actually nice respite from the tension of the personal drama on the film’s 1979 moment. The haphazard quality of storytelling is sometimes complimented by Niell’s beautiful score of electronic ethereal melodies that ebb and swell patiently and sound like they are building toward something more dramatic that never arrives before fading out. There’s a beautiful aimlessness that speaks to the characters’ pursuit of self-actualization in an era overly concerned with self-help books.
The ragged edges of narrative would never work without nuanced performances, Bening being the film’s standout. She speaks in great hesitations that load her language with thought, feeling and baggage. When she smiles at Jaime after he says goodbye to Julie after celebrating his mom’s 55th birthday, and he offers an annoyed “What?” she responds, “I just think having your heart broken — you know — is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” It’s cruel, wise, inappropriate and possibly well-intended, and Bening captures it all in an funny glance and delivery that’s only slightly hesitant because Dorothea is a woman who just can’t seem to help herself. Speaking of great hesitations, Gerwig has long demonstrated her expertise in it, and her portrayal of Abbie is no exception. Fanning is also outstanding as a young woman who seems to know a bit too much about men for a high school girl. Her impersonation of men cool walking with a cigarette to how guys moan during sex comes from an intimate experience with the opposite sex. The casual quality in how she inhabits these moments in front of Jaime is just another bit of affectionate cruelty the teen endures and Zumann infuses these moments with a repressed pining charm that never feels cloying. Then there’s Crudup, who is nothing but charming as a character fumbling through the mixed signals he receives from Abbie and Dorothea.
Though the film drags a bit toward the end, the rewards in watching these characters strain with complex feelings that many can relate with never relents. Placing this drama in an era where women struggled with opening up their experiences during a time that seemed so conflicted about how much they should assert themselves while seeking social equality with men speaks to Mills’ astute complexity as a filmmaker who understands the value of context. It can be found in the punk music featuring women musicians like The Raincoats and Siouxsie and the Banshees as much as it is in the actions of these ladies who can’t avoid dealing with men who in turn tangle with trying to connect with their feminine side to get closer with the opposite sex, be they lovers or mothers. That all of this is handled with a breezy quality balancing humor and heartache makes 20th Century Women one of the better dramas* you will see entering the multiplex this weekend.
*Note: 20th Century Women is on my list of top 20 films of 2016.
20th Century Women runs 118 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, Jan. 20, as well as plenty of multiplexes. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit the movie’s official website. A24 invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.