Writer-director Mike Mills weaves a delicate and delightful tapestry with his latest film, 20th Century Women; a simply brilliant slice of life which is laden with beautiful sequences, poignant undertones of family, gender, and equality, and an immaculate ensemble performance. Patient in its approach, and eloquent in its restraint, Mills harnesses a durable tale which will long withstand the heady “Oscar Buzz” that many of its competitors require in order to sustain.
A somewhat biographic account of Mills’ relationship with his mother, the film maintains an almost episodic recollection of young adulthood in the late 70s; painting a rich collage of the sights, the sounds, the styles, and the soul of the transformative time period. Annette Bening – continuing her long tradition of exemplary performances when working with complex female creations – plays Dorothea; a freethinking Santa Barbara mom, whose day-to-day involves little more than a routine check of the stocks, and the consumption of a dozen cigarettes. She is an independent woman; a divorcée committed to raising her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as a moral, intellectual man, yet she inadvertently denies herself a structured happiness.
Her home feels like a free house, with plentiful and colourful characters occupying its kitchen, rooms, and stairwells. Would-be photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) rents a bedroom, where she spends time snapping stills of her limited possessions, and dancing awkwardly to New Wave and Punk tunes. Meanwhile Julie (Elle Fanning); a worldweary and confrontational young women – who frequents Jamie’s bedroom via scaffolding and window – is exploring her femininity, sexuality, and sociology. And then there’s William (Billy Crudup), a salt-of-the-earth mechanic, and one of life’s ‘good guys’, who finds himself fixing up, and ultimately residing at the inn.
20th Century Women‘s most clear narrative path is that Dorothea wants Abbie and Julie to help construct her son as a ‘man’; to teach him things she cannot, to guide him when she is unable, and to show him how to be the best he can be, without feeling as though each step he takes is moderated or foretold. It is a small plot device, but a necessary one, as Jamie soon begins to explore the cultures and teachings of postmodern feminism, and builds even closer bonds with the many females in his sphere. But ultimately, Mills’ latest is a memory, an epilogue; it refuses to be constricted by the reigns of genre, and instead washes over the silver screen in a series of gorgeously penned monologues. Dialogue ripples through scenes like lapping water; returning for another surge of heart and laughs time and time again. The distinct naturalism of performance, paired with the nakedness of prose makes this one of the most keenly observed films in contention for awards success, and there is little doubt that the Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards was wholeheartedly deserved.
Aesthetically, the picture is thunderously impressive; undoubtedly Mills’ most assured visual piece to date. Benefiting from a rushing colour palette, delicately coordinated cinematography, and sublime art direction, each glimmer of natural light feels warm, and each footstep on the beach leaves sand between the toes. There is a rusticity and stillness to the craft which is most admirable, and confirms its director as a highly-skilled technician. Equally impressive is the implementation of music – perhaps the sharpest usage of soundtrack this season. It is richly edited, and sensibly curated, helping to make the kaleidoscope of songs – from Black Flag, to the Buzzcocks; from David Bowie, to Devo – work like bookends for the many flowing moments of immediate grace.
The principal cast involved are all absolutely fantastic. Newcomer Zumann is most impressive, and is able to maintain a sense of control in frame, even when he’s surrounded by some of the best in the business. Crudup delivers yet another excellent supporting performance – he’s having a great year with both this and Jackie. Fanning and Gerwig are both glorious in their contrasting roles; both decadently rendered with pathos, sincerity, and warmth despite notable differences. However the biggest mystery of all is how Bening failed to attain a Best Leading Actress nomination for her work here, because she delivers her most commanding role since American Beauty (1999). Her Dorothea – the characterisation of Mills’ mother – is earthy and humane; expertly textured, definitively played. With such nuance and attention, Bening identifies the woman she embodies as an emotionally resilient and forward-thinking spirit.
20th Century Women is an almighty achievement. A tonally assured, vibrantly tailored work, simply brimming with intimate personality and important ideas. Mills captures a world which feels lived in, and the micro-stories told are tangible, melancholic, and thoughtful. What a treat this film is.
20th Century Women opens on wide release across UK cinemas on Friday, 17th February.