20th Century Women (2016)
Starring- Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
Director- Mike Mills
R- sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use
Three women from different generations who live under the same roof in 1970s SoCal conspire to raise the oldest’s complicated teenage son when she starts to feel as though she no longer understands him.
20th Century Women very much represents a director coming into his own as an artist, so I feel like I should be more excited about it than I am. It’s a very good movie, but I’m struggling to muster anything more than mild enthusiasm for it. I basically enjoyed it, but I find my admiration for it is somewhat abstract.
For writer/director Mike Mills, I think it’s a giant leap forward. I didn’t like Beginners. I thought it resembled the popular stereotype of the indie film — arbitrarily strange and quirky to the point that even its more grounded elements became meaningless — and its non-chronological structure robbed it of dramatic heft. It felt effortful, like it was self-conscious about its novelty.
20th Century Women is right where it needs to be. It feels like Mills discovering how to use his voice while filtering it through a framework that allows other people (or at least me) to understand it. It keeps a lot of what made Beginners distinct — his use of politics and culture to define settings and circumstances, his unique use of voiceover narration (here alternating between the perspectives of the various characters, and occasionally removing them from time so they can muse about the past and the future), and especially his eye for little personal details and the way they express character and make things feel real — but no longer seems as though it’s trying very hard to be different. In so doing, it actually becomes different — something effortlessly original, something that feels like a distinct vision but never comes across as though it’s trying to impress you.
The story is told in chronological order this time, which doesn’t inherently make it superior to Beginners. For me, the problem was that Beginners’ non-linear structure felt like guesswork, darts thrown at the wall; it was never clear to me why it chose to show us what it did when it did. I didn’t see the connection, and getting all these pieces of the story at random made it tough to track emotionally. If nothing else, 20th Century Women benefits from the emotional continuity brought about by one scene leading directly into the next.
Matched with characters who express themselves far more organically, and with much less labored strangeness, and the end result is something more compelling. I understood these characters, who they were as people, what they wanted, how they felt, all that. They were relatable to me in a way Beginners’ cast never was.
Despite the chronology, 20th Century Women isn’t really all that narrative. It isn’t quite a freeform, hangout sort of movie, but it’s close. There’s no inciting incident that drives a conflict the movie resolves before its run-time elapses. It’s ordinary life presented in bits and pieces — ordinary life that eventually enters more intense phases, but nothing we don’t all go through at some point, and it’s never forced. I’m not exactly sure what it’s about — everything and nothing, I suppose. I almost don’t mind, because every subject it wanders into is well observed and expressed in ways that never occurred to me before. It’s about existence — anxieties about growing up, getting older; fears about the past, present, and future; the moment-to-moment joys; questions of identity and the roles to which society has assigned you; the strange, ever-changing relationship between parents and children; the nagging worry that you’re wasting your life; the constant wondering if anyone is truly happy or if some are just faking it better than others. I’m not sure what, if anything, the movie has to say about this, only that it identifies the human condition with the resonance it needs. And who better to present it? A powerhouse like Annette Bening, the always-vibrant Greta Gerwig, and an exciting young talent like Elle Fanning? You couldn’t ask for more from this cast.
I’m thinking hard, then, about why I struggled to connect with this as deeply as I wanted to. An interview with Mills may have put this in perspective for me. Like Beginners before it, 20th Century Women is semi-autobiographical, inspired by Mills’ childhood being raised by his mother and older sisters. The characters are based on them, as well as old friends. I think that isolated my problem — 20th Century Women exists outside of its characters but doesn’t view them from any particular person’s perspective. Obviously, the teenage son, Jamie, is Mills’ stand-in, but unlike Ewan McGregor in Beginners, he isn’t the movie’s protagonist. As such, the movie feels like an observer but not a participant. We’re seeing the protagonists from a perspective that is not their own, or any particular characters. As such, despite the movie’s efforts to really get inside its characters’ heads, it always kept me at arm’s length. Many of the scenes in this movie have no obvious purpose other than to spend time with these people and get to know them, and this keeps some of them from providing the insight they need to. Hangout movies still have structure; they’re just a little deceptive about it. 20th Century Women sometimes feels inert, like it’s said all it needs to say and is just killing time — at least until it manages to bring another subject to the forefront.
Even so, 20th Century Women is enjoyable. Few movies achieve its level of warmth without becoming cloying. The cast is stellar, and Mills’ direction is appropriately sensitive and beautiful. It may not complete many of its thoughts, but its process is nevertheless insightful. It’s a modest but moving little indie.