20th Century Women. Mike Mills. USA.
Trying to spend the majority of every December consuming as many films from the given year as I possibly can is always a futile endeavor, as I never get the chance to see as many as I’d like to (whether due to time constraints or inaccessibility). Inevitably I end up seeing films in the early months of the following year that would have cracked my Top 10 if I had caught them sooner. When December approaches, I always plan to revise all my annual lists by placing the films in their proper year (The Lobster, A Bigger Splash, and Cemetery of Splendor technically premiered in 2015; I also saw some of my 2015 favorites, like Neon Bull, show up on some 2016 lists considering it was released theatrically in spring 2016). That too seems hopeless as I tend to question my own liking of certain films after a few years (bad memory or advancements in taste? Who knows?).
I caught Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women last weekend when it opened in Chicago after an award-qualifying run in New York City and Los Angeles late last month, and had I caught the film prior to making my 2016 list, it certainly would have slipped into the Top 10. I’m not going to bother myself with where it would have fallen or what would have fallen off the current list, as I don’t really have any interest in keeping a running hierarchy of all the 2016 films I’ve seen. In truth, I could probably rearrange the list every other week based on my wavering, sometimes unpredictable feelings. So instead, I’ll just amend my honorable mentions, as I felt compelled to write something about how truly exquisite and deeply moving I found the film to be.
In essence, 20th Century Women functions as the companion piece to the director’s previous feature, 2010’s Beginners, which featured Ewan McGregor as a melancholic illustrator whose father (played by Christopher Plummer, who took home a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance) comes out of the closet a few years before dying of cancer. Both deeply personal works of fiction, 20th Century Women and Beginners function as eloquent tributes to the director’s eccentric parents. Making specific, recognizable visual and narrative choices for two closely related films doesn’t always succeed (see Lars von Trier’s Dogville and its vastly inferior “sequel,” Manderlay), but shaping and mapping 20th Century Women and Beginners along the same lines—with their narration, cultural asides and montages, and nonlinear story structure—actually works in both films’ favor, creating a warm familiarity to each (I’ve rewatched Beginners since seeing 20th Century Women).
As its title suggests, the scope of 20th Century Women expands beyond Beginners, with a healthier mix of characters and a broader window of time. The film is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, surrounding the inhabitants of a beautiful old Victorian home owned by Dorothea (Annette Bening), who lives with her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the handyman, William, who is helping her rehab the property (Billy Crudup), and a young twentysomething, Abbie, who rents a room upstairs (Greta Gerwig). Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), also uses the home as a refuge from her complicated home life. The film hovers around the home itself and finds its direction when Dorothea asks Abbie and Julie to help her raise and keep an eye on Jamie following an unsettling stint in the hospital after horsing around with his friends.
Like Beginners, 20th Century Women is admittedly kind of a mess; it’s really a spliced-together portrait of a time and characters, comprised of memorable scenes and lofty ideas… which occasionally appears to lack any real focus. But for all its messiness, it’s glorious and extremely affecting. The three lead actresses—the younger of which I’ve had conflicting feelings toward in other films—deliver the best performances of their careers, and for Bening, that’s a major claim. Bening is magnetic, and her enthusiasm is wholly contagious. Like Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Bening brings her complicated, fascinating character to life in such a compelling way that you just want to watch her thrown into every possible scenario and setting just to witness her response.
Perhaps the forever-in-repair Victorian, which looks a bit like a construction zone in certain areas but has enough usable space in the common areas for Dorothea to host her own birthday parties and intellectual gatherings, provides the most effective visual representation of the film itself, beyond just providing a fabulous set piece. Now that’s he’s completed his father and mother pictures, I’m anxious and excited to see what Mills has in store next.
20th Century Women premiered at the New York Film Festival in October and was released theatrically by A24 Films at the end of December; it’s currently making its way around the U.S. It will be released in the U.K. and France this spring by Entertainment One and Mars Distribution, respectively.
With: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Alia Shawkat, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson