From the moment that its dreamy opening sequence sets the scene – Santa Barbara, 1979 – 20th Century Women manages to walk a thin line between realism and the contemplative daydream that is human experience. Director Mike Mills weaves a unique, moving and often deeply funny story around a small, incredibly talented cast; a subtle coming of age narrative that connects with each of its characters, regardless of age. While the story here takes place over a relatively short period of time in 1979, Mills scaffolds the narrative with quick-fire flashbacks montages, encompassing deeply personal, transformative moments and moments that transformed America. Consequently, he subtly transforms this simple tale into an engaging and uniquely structured film.
Annette Bening is wonderful as resilient single mother Dorothy Fields, an endearing, indefinable presence in the lives of those close to her. Dorothy is parts conservative and liberal, old fashioned and fashionably “current.” As exemplified in her decision to smoke menthols because they’re “healthier,” Dorothy exists on a precipice between past and present Americas, yet is representative of neither. Dorothy’s 15-year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is in love with his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and enamoured with the art-punk lifestyle of Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a boarder in the Fields’ house. Dorothy enlists the helps of these two women with Jamie’s adolescent upbringing, while each seeks to define themselves during a time of deep cultural change in America – an America that has come to terms with the death of the 60s but is unprepared for the conservative shockwave of Reagan’s 1980s.
Mills structures 20th Century Women with delicately arranged montages and moments in time: past, present and future, personal, public and universal. These are moments that change lives and moments that make very little difference at all, yet each define the humans that live in them. Through these moments, Mills provides us with a cast of characters that are perfectly well rounded and marked with pronounced idiosyncrasies. In choosing to delve straight into the story and omit laboured passages of character setup and motivation, Mills makes the whole thing seem effortless.
While each of 20th Century Women’s cast members delivers fantastic, funny and often moving performances, Bening’s turn as Dorothy is as indefinably wonderful as the character herself and captures perfectly the often-ambiguous cultural and political atmosphere of the time. Similarly, Crudup is so immensely likeable here as the film’s only other male presence, William, it’s a shame we don’t we don’t see more of him. With his talented cast, smart screenplay and artful, skilled direction, Mills creates a world that extends beyond the boundaries of the narrative; we genuinely care about what will happen to these characters after the credits roll. Mills manages to capture the weird, wild and wonderful without seeming laboured or forced, as is so often the case when dealing with the counter-culture of the past.
Its only January, but you can be fairly positive 20th Century Women will feature heavily in ‘best of’ lists come this time next year. Admittedly, with its rambling structure, the film can seem a little unfocused at times and the central themes are perhaps hammered home a little too hard by the story’s end. Still, there’s just so much to connect with in this uniquely structured, softly affecting and deeply funny film.