Perhaps there are no two greater examples of cinematic contrast during this year’s Oscar season than Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. Both films will most likely land some number of Oscar nominations when they’re announced in Hollywood later this month. Both films are of cultural value and demonstrate emotionally aesthetic achievement. Both films showcase top-marks performances by their primary actors. But where La La Land presents thin, one-coat-only, brush strokes in its character paintings, 20th Century Women presents multi-layered, messy and imperfect, endlessly complex and fascinating portraits of real people. Mills’ film gives us three women to concentrate upon, all living during 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, and all somehow connected to fifteen-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). They are: Julie (Elle Fanning), the sexually-free and uber-complicated teenage BFF who Jamie happens to be in love with – Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the well-meaning and psychologically-progressive photographer who happens to live as a boarder in Jamie’s mother’s house; and Dorothea (Annette Bening), Jamie’s mother, via which Bening gives the finest performance of her career thus far.
The premise of the film, more or less, is this: Dorothea as a single mom enlists the help of Julie and Abbie to help her raise Jamie – or rather, help teach, expand the mind and experience of, Jamie. Dorothea is a strong, real, and authentically curious woman, living in a decade that feels vaguely foreign to her; she is worried that she is not able to raise Jamie, to the best man that he can be, all on her own. Adventures and knowledge-bestowals then abound. By the end of 20th Century Women we understand, as Dorothea does too, that she didn’t need anyone’s help to raise Jamie. It is her unique relationship with him, as it is with any of us and the person or people who raise us, that helps define who he is. Of course it is an imperfect upbringing – because it is a human one. The means through which the audience learns this lesson allows it to see that the influences of other players in our life’s play – here Julie and Abbie – are just as intense and profound whether they are purposeful and directed as they are for a time during this particular story, or whether they are merely incidental and the side-effects of close friendship.
The arc of this film’s story sounds straightforward perhaps, but Mills’ artistic and true guiding hand render it, as a whole, anything but. 20th Century Women feels like a beautiful poem written by a poet determined to write from a place of realism. There is an ongoing spoken narration that makes itself known throughout the film, a voice that at times tells us of the past or future of the character at hand in a factual and removed manner. This forces the viewer to realize the smallness, length-wise, of each character’s lifespan, and thus the smallness of his or her own lifespan. Each life can be told of in several lines or so – but with this bit of knowledge comes the other bit – that the “real life” part of life is in the nether regions outside of the several lines. It’s in the feelings each individual feels from moment to moment, it’s in the emotional exchanges between people, it’s in the personal and sometime benign memories that are carried forward through the years.
For instance, we learn the impending life outcomes of each main character at the end of the film – who he or she marries, the children he or she has, the intensity of connection that he or she still holds to Jamie and Santa Barbara. Director Mike Mills, whose previous film was the equally tender Beginners (2010), wages a commanding directorial hand over this film that allows the story to breathe itself into existence organically.
20th Century Women is centered on Jamie, a teenager growing up at the end of the 70s when “nothing means anything.” He is an emotionally authentic character, earnestly connected to his friend Julie, and his age forces him to reckon with the time in which he lives in a rather direct fashion. The odd truth in the story is that Jamie is quite fine and alright – it is the people meddling in his life that cause him trouble and that push him toward boundaries that may or may not be quite ready for.
20th Century Women is centered on Jamie – but – as the title suggests, the film is about Jamie’s women. Abbie the boarder teaches Jamie about women with feminist literature and with stories of her own experience as an art student in 1970s New York. She teaches him how to be with women in a more intense way; she gives him literature on clitoral stimulation (much to Dorothea’s chagrin). She takes him out to music clubs and plays him records of songs that say something about the strange facts of 1979. Mills uses music expertly in the film: David Bowie’s “DJ” (Lodger, 1979) and Talking Heads’ “The Big Country” (More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1978) accent standout scenes that help to imply accurate cultural import. Julie the BFF teaches Jamie about the complications of falling in love with a best friend and about the complexities of the female sexual experience. Dorothea the mother teaches Jamie about the complexities of living: that no one person is peggable as one type or another, that a person’s life experience transcends the limitations of its various applied labels of gender, age, race, sexual orientation, height, weight, etc. None of this teaching is done in an obnoxious and outright fashion, though it is instigated and encouraged as such by Dorothea. This is a testament to the strength and individuality of Julie’s and Abbie’s characters and to the open-mindedness of Dorothea’s.
Dorothea’s lesson is one of rawness and realness, one offered out of love and the desire for one’s offspring to “be happier” and do better than one’s self has managed to do. This lesson is subtle – but Dorothea is a subtle woman – mainly because she is authentic, like many of our mothers are/were. This element renders Annette Bening’s performance to be so remarkable, magnificent, and the best one of 2016. The first moments of 20th Century Women, during which we see and hear Dorothea going about her life, leave the viewer a bit at a loss for words; it almost seems as though Bening is offering up a poor dramatic interpretation. She hesitates on her lines in strange ways; at times she seems to under-react to the situation at hand. But about twenty minutes into the viewing experience there is an a-ha! moment for the viewer, at which she realizes that Bening is not doing a strange acting job but rather a tremendous one. She has so become Dorothea that she has assumed the character’s everyday behavioral idiosyncrasies as well. Dorothea is free-spirited but more or less normal-ish – so the transition for Bening was slight, it was exquisite.
Two scenes jump out as notable highlights. Firstly, the scene in which Dorothea, along with romantic-ish player William (Billy Crudup), test out, remark upon, and eventually dance to, current ’70s music of Black Flag and Talking Heads. Dorothea is intent upon understanding the time in which she lives as a single woman in her late fifties; she wants to connect. Art is a crucial method of achieving this, and these moments in the film underscore this fact. Music is of critical importance to Abby, too; part of her tutelage with Jamie is through self-expression accomplished via music and dancing. Secondly, the scene in which Julie tries to explain to Jamie about why she fools around with the number of guys that she does. It is difficult to find a scene in cinematic history that offers a match in accuracy of the answer to this question. Truly incredible, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women stands as an ideal example of success in a male filmmaker’s attempt to interpret the female experience.