By Ali Coad, Senior Editor
Writer, director Mike Mills set the bar as high as the clouds with “Beginners,” the triumphant and beautiful mostly-autobiographical story of his father, a man (played by an unencumbered Christopher Plummer) who, after a long and hapless marriage, announces he’s gay the very week he’s diagnosed with cancer. Much to the chagrin of his buttoned-up son (Ewan McGregor), Plummer’s character explodes with color, compensating for all those years of quiet servitude and repressed desire. It’s a story that’s far too good for fiction. And now in Mills’s newest feature, “20th Century Women,” Mills pays tribute to his mother. This is an ode, a pure and exuberant portrait of what it means to be a woman (and everything that means) at the turn of the century at a particularly transitory time in our country’s history (think: President Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence Speech,’ The Talking Heads, feminism, Susan Sontag, counterculture, punk).
At the heart of the film we have Dorothea Fields (played by the delightful Annette Bening). She’s a more practiced free-spirit, a woman who analyzes the stocks every morning but also boasts loud and untamed hair along with a sturdy pair of Birkenstocks. At 55, she’s tender and generous with everyone she meets. In the first scene of the film, Dorothea’s car catches fire in the parking lot as she’s shopping with her son at the local grocer. At the end of the scene, after the authorities have been called, she lights her Salem cigarette and calmly invites the firefighters who extinguished her car over for dinner. A move, to which her son, in typical teenage fashion, says, “You know, mom, when the firemen come, people don’t usually invite them over for dinner,” to which she curtly replies “Yeah, why not?”
Dorothea’s son, Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann), at 15, is on the verge of manhood, of becoming a person of substance in this world. And if Dorothea is the heart of the film, Jamie’s everything else that the body needs to work. Zumann excels in this role; Jamie is so sincere and earnest and fragile. He wants to be good and a feminist but doesn’t quite know how to be either. His best friend is Julie (played by Elle Fanning), and he’s desperately in love with her. She, however, loves him too much to have sex with him… or so she says. It’s so idealistic and backwards and fitting for teenage rationale. Every night, Julie sneaks into Jamie’s room to talk and to sleep, but doesn’t allow any sort of physicality in their relationship.
We also have Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 24-year-old photographer, and William (Billy Crudup), a mechanic, carpenter and potter, circling and intertwining with the lives of Dorothy and Jamie. Dorothy rents out rooms in her large Victorian house, a house that’s constantly under renovation, to both Abbie and William, creating this perfect cast of plucky, nuanced characters. They each deliver such generous, emotionally charged performances. The characters feel so full, and I think too, so full of sadness. There’s a sense of melancholy threads the film together, sometimes it’s obtuse and pounding and other times, that sense of nostalgia or sadness, is more subtle and gentle, so much so that the it might even be described as tender.
There’s very little plot in “20th Century Women,” very little actually happens. There’s no actionable conflict at the beginning, no clean resolution at the end, and there’s nothing in between that engines the film forward. At one point, Dorothy enlists Julie and Abbie to help raise Jamie, to teach him the ways of life, expose him to the things that Dorothy, as a single mother, never could. That’s it as far as plot (if it could even be described as such). Instead, the strength and muscle of the film lies in its conversations, in its for-every-step-forward-two-steps-backwards movement. Watching this, it felt entirely fitting that this take place in Santa Barbara, not only for it’s liberal, hippie ideals, but because this film, to me, was romantic in only the way that a place like California can be. And, simultaneously, in the way that only the past can be. The pace and sometimes choppy nature of “20th Century Women” mirrored so much the movement of the ocean. The sharp and curling waves that smack and startle but then, always and invariably, smooth and settle, but never completely or fully.
It’s a sturdy, wholesome film, a film that only Mike Mills could make. His films celebrate the act of filmmaking, both in technique and content. His work, I think, is a testament to memory and vision and sentiment, and “20th Century Women” is no exception. I’d very much recommend you check this film out; you won’t find another one like it (unless, of course, you watch “Beginners,” to which you’ll see many similar conventions).