Review: 20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners)
Writer: Mike Mills
Producers: Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, Youree Henley
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alison Elliott
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 119 min.



My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd


MMike Mills has really found his groove as a filmmaker by mining his personal life in order to make semi-autobiographical love letters to each of his parents. His previous film, 2011’s Beginners, explored the many emotions that resulted when his father came out of the closet near the end of his life after decades of being married to his mother. The result was a tender, incredibly intimate portrait that is frankly one of my favorite films of all-time. His follow up, 20th Century Women, focuses on a woman very much inspired by his own mother, and on the experience of growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s, and it’s nearly as good. We all bring our own personal experiences into every film we see, or any work of art we explore really, and I have to say there’s something about what Mills has been doing with his two most recent pictures that strikes me on a profound level that no one else has really been able to tap into.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been going through a rough time lately personally speaking, perhaps it’s because my relationship with my own mother is loaded with emotion and fondness that makes me prone to being majorly affected by stories about boys and their mothers, or maybe it’s just that Mills has his finger perfectly placed on my emotional wavelength, in all honesty it’s likely a combination of all three, but whatever the reason may be, 20th Century Women had a kind of deep, lasting impact that I haven’t felt with a movie since probably Beginners, one which absolutely wrecked me, and had me in serious tears constantly throughout. That might surprise some people, as like Beginners it definitely doesn’t have that manipulative tearjerker quality that things like Lion and A Monster Calls do where you’re constantly told that you better bring tissues when you go to see it. Focused on Dorothea (Annette Bening, in one of her best performances), a self-sufficient woman who runs a boarding house with her teenage son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), 20th Century Women has a very loose and malleable approach that could make it difficult for some people to get into or to find it dull, yet I think this approach is so fitting for the era, and for the experience that Mills is trying to capture. It’s like a perfect snapshot of a time in American life reflected on today, with the film very rooted in this specific time and place, while the themes still feel relevant now.

Bening and Zumann are joined in the main parts by Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup, playing boarders of the house, and Elle Fanning, as a close friend of Jamie’s, and the five represent easily the strongest ensemble of acting from the year in film. As he did with Beginners, Mills casts the perfect actors for each of these parts, with each of them entirely in tune with his vision and his delicate, poignant delivery. It really is a perfect companion piece to his previous film, as tone wise it is in the exact same key, while narratively it takes these things that could be super melodramatic in other prestige kind of movies (cancer, first love, etc.) and presents them in a way that’s far more realistic and earnest than we’re used to seeing, which just makes them have much more impact as a result. In truth, I don’t think I could ever really find the words to express the way that Mike Mills’ movies affect me on a very profound level that just hit me at my core and well up these powerful emotions while I’m watching them, despite them being so “simple” on the surface, likely to a fault for some. What I can do is be grateful that someone is out there making movies who seems to truly get me as he does, someone creating films that speak to me the way that 20th Century Women has.