There are times when you walk out of a movie, and in that exact moment, you just know that it's a great film. To give a recent example, when the credits rolled on Moonlight, I was beyond floored. I knew that I had witnessed a masterpiece. However, there are other times where the feeling of a movie lingers. It sticks with you during the ride home, as you reflect on the vibe, the experience, the performances, and the narrative arc of the story. Sooner or later, you realize that you just saw something pretty great. That happened with 20th Century Women. Mike Mills creates such a relaxing, intoxicating sense of time and place with his third feature, bringing life to an atmosphere and a mentality that feels like a relic of a bygone era. The story told here is of a very specific experience, but its universal appeal is what makes it so refreshing and brilliant. 20th Century Women may not initially seem like much, but there's so much more than meets the eye in this portrait of a Santa Barbara family during the last moments of the American cultural revolution.
1979 has been a popular time for many filmmakers to explore, and it's not hard to understand why. For many, the late 70s are representative of either the death of the American dream or the demise of the counter-culture, which provides an interesting societal contrast. Mills takes the meaninglessness and the frustration of the era and channels it into a coming-of-age tale of sorts that explores the life of a young boy and the generations of women who raised him during this specific moment in time. That teenage boy is Jamie Fields (played by Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15 year old kid who lives with his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening). The Fields family doesn't exactly live alone though- their house is constantly bustling with a variety of creative types and close friends, who all seem to love spending time with the charismatic matriarch of the Santa Barbara clan.
There's William (Billy Crudup), an amiable, talented craftsman who becomes the only male influence on Jamie. There's also punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a cancer survivor who has a socially awkward manner. And of course, there's Julie (Elle Fanning), a longtime friend of Jamie and the girl that he loves. At this moment in time, it's clear that Jamie is starting to break away from the life that he used to share with his mother. He's growing more independent, more reckless, more unpredictable. One day, he plays a stupid "fainting" game with his friends, only to end up unconscious for more than 30 minutes. Dorothea is perplexed by her young son's sudden development, and she tries to find a way to connect with him. She hopes that by using Abbie and Julie, she'll find a way into his impressionable mind. The result is a formative set of experiences for all of the involved parties, as they question love, sources of happiness, and the meaning of ordinary interactions during the course of one bright, joyful summer in sunny California.
20th Century Women is one of the rare films that is about everything and nothing at the same time. It works like a Richard Linklater picture in certain ways, and I was reminded of Everybody Wants Some!! and Dazed and Confused at various moments. Mills doesn't suffocate the story with forced tension or drama, allowing the characters to breathe and grow as real, flesh-and-blood human beings. You feel like you know these people by the time the credits roll, and it's the lack of a true narrative that allows the rich, insightful dialogue to flow freely on the screen. Mills wants you to understand these people, and he wants you to understand the impact that they had on each other during this influential cultural shift. 20th Century Women doesn't really have a beginning, middle, and end. It shows a moment in time, but with such vivid detail that the film is practically overflowing with warmth and humanity.
The fact that Mills has an excellent eye for time and place only makes this work in an even more impressive way. He captures the aimlessness and futility that many cultural historians attribute to late 1970s America, but also the sense of unity that came with the final days of the time period that fundamentally changed the country. Don't get me wrong, 20th Century Women isn't exactly a film about the death of culture and the arrival of the Reagan age, even if there are various references to that throughout. However, by using that as the backdrop for a multi-generational story, Mills only enriches the atmosphere, furthering the connection and context we have with the narrative being told. It doesn't define the story- it merely enhances the sense of striking energy that Mills brings to these characters.
But 20th Century Women somehow goes beyond being about a group of individuals in 1979 Santa Barbara. On a more macro level, Mills' film is about how a specific moment- a year, a summer, a week- can have a massive impact on the rest of your life, even if those people aren't around forever. There's a bittersweet air to the way that 20th Century Women plays out, and it's with these ideas that the movie has its most profound impact. It's a film that is both about individuality and the need for human connection, and the ending struck me in a surprising manner. Especially as someone who is about to undergo a major change in life, there's something simultaneously painful and hopeful about understanding the fleeting nature of important moments. 20th Century Women is about the twilight days of an era, both for our characters and for the time period they inhabit.
The warmth and vibrant energy of 20th Century Women extends to the performances, delivered by actors with a keen understanding of the characters. These are some of the best performances of the year, and it's a shame that more recognition isn't being given to the talented team behind this film. Granted, they have quite a bit to work with, as Mike Mills' screenplay is absolutely terrific in all the right ways. Nonetheless, each member of the small ensemble takes their character and develops them into something sensational, creating a complete individual that the audience can understand. Annette Bening is the center of the 20th Century Women universe, and her performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. Bening plays Dorothea as a woman of contradictions and idiosyncrasies, someone who is almost impossible to describe. Strong-willed, but open to discussion, big-hearted, but intensely private, and a woman who almost feels like she's living in the wrong era. I know it was a competitive year, but Bening really should have made the cut in the Best Actress category.
And yet somehow, she doesn't even give the most compelling performance in the film. That honor belongs to Greta Gerwig, who is a funny, cheerfully awkward presence as Abbie. Gerwig hasn't always hit the right notes for me (I'm not a fan of the Baumbach stuff), but she's nothing short of hysterical here, and she manages to be deeply complex and profoundly sad at the same time. Elle Fanning rounds out the main trio of women, and she has become a thoroughly dependable actress, even at the young age of 18. Fanning captures the complexity of teenage relationships and aimless struggle, which feels like a nice contrast to Bening and Gerwig. Her relationship with Lucas Jade Zumann's Jamie hit a heartbreaking note for me, and I was truly dazzled by his performance. Jamie reminded me of myself in a lot of ways, which I think is one of the most magical aspects of 20th Century Women. I have a feeling that most audiences will see a bit of themselves in Mills' film, and that allows for his cultural collage to come to life in a breathtaking way.
20th Century Women does ramble at times, and it took a while for me to understand what exactly it was building towards. But when it does all come together, it hits a euphoric, joyous note that few films are able to accomplish. It's a movie about the small moments, the fun conversations and unique people that shape our lives before we're even able to realize it. Plus, it's bolstered by a killer soundtrack, some great additional scoring from Roger Neill, and excellent cinematography from Sean Porter. Mike Mills has crafted something that is nothing short of hypnotizing, a film drunk on its own relentless sense of hope and optimism. It's the kind of film that I can see myself revisiting time and time again, just to spend more time in such a beautiful atmosphere filled with great people. 20th Century Women is a film that deals with weighty ideas, but it's a truly calming, exuberant experience. It operates in a space that few films are willing to touch, but thanks to the assured work of Mills and his amazing cast, the result is spectacular.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.5/10)
Images courtesy of A24