Like Beginners was inspired by Mike Mills’s relationship with his elderly gay father, his new film 20th Century Women focuses his relationship on his mother. While Beginners similarly played with editing to embody the intangibility of memory, Women exists in a beautiful haze of shapshots threaded together like we might remember a period that defined us: linear but maybe not, burdened by the perspective of the future, perhaps even a little better (or worse) than it actually was. The film is a memory play of sorts but moreso interested in the unknowability of any one person in your life, no matter how they reveal or define themselves. With omniscient details of the inner lives of the ensemble delivered in shared voice over, Mike Mills makes a film that is deeply personal for all of its inhabitants, a work about growing up from a filmmaker who has done just that with his third film.
Annette Bening is the mother Dorothea, expressive and verbose but always leaving something of herself untold; she’s a product of the Great Depression shifted by the cultural tides of 60-70s, and therefore impossible to reduce to one thing. Raising her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone, she calls on the residents of their giant shambling mansion to take part in his rearing: a punk artist (Greta Gerwig), the wayward object of his affection (Elle Fanning), and occasionally the man that helps restore the house (Billy Crudup). This makeshift family unit comes with their own individual baggage that builds Jamie up like the walls of the house, but it’s Dorothea that’s being restored.
The film is a flurry of feminism, punk rock, and bruised intimacy. Mills’s light touch keeps its profound observations from becoming saccharine, especially when Bening is allowed to discover Dorothea’s uncertainties and contradictions. But no one element or character takes precedence over another as the film beautifully embodies the whole – the breadth of the film isn’t complete without Gerwig’s fear, Crudup’s fundamental sadness, or Zumann’s certainty. Single moments, like a speech by Jimmy Carter or a punk rock song, result in a range of reactions that are all given equal interest. 20th Century Women is about the whole – it’s pieces are breathtaking, and the whole is occasionally overwhelming.
There has been a progression in Mike Mills’s work in both quality and the execution of his point of view. This film is one from a very distinct filmmaker, a vision equally of the head and heart that lands on the precise even though its moments are loaded with complexity. I simply can’t wait to see where he goes from here.
Revealing at every turn, 20th Century Women is a film that could be healing at any time, but feels all the more thoughtful now as women’s rights and masculinity comes to our cultural forefront. Like anything else in the movie, those issues are met with warm embrace and understanding that all nuances can’t be met in one simple resolution or statement. It reaches for compassion with its full body, giving a surprising emotional impact that you’ll want to chase like a fateful memory, or an opportunity not taken. It would knock you flat if it hadn’t already lifted you up.