Mike Mills, in his third film, has become an even stronger writer-director. I thought his last film, Beginners, had a lot of promise, and it is paying off in 20th Century Women. When I read over my review of Beginners (I hardly ever remember movies any more, just whether I like them) I see that the main character had an eccentric mother. Apparently this is autobiographical. In Beginners it was about his father, but 20th Century Women is about mothers.
Set in Santa Barbara in 1979 (my time period) 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) has the normal concerns, but also some very bizarre ones. His best friend is a girl two years older than him (Elle Fanning) that will have sleepovers but not have sex with him (though she has sex with many other guys). His mother, Annette Bening, was a working woman even back in the Depression, and has a curious view of life. She’s an extremely permissive parent, sticking up for Jamie when he misses too much school. She fears she is knowing him less every day, and enlists Fanning and a boarder, Bohemian photographer Greta Gerwig, to help raise him.
There is a male presence in the house, another boarder who is remodeling the house (a precise metaphor for the constant state of unfixedness in the family), Billy Crudup. But he’s a man-child, who has plenty of affairs but doesn’t know how to relate to women. Bening has to teach him how to ask a woman to dance.
It’s these five characters who exist in a little world. There’s a lot of Wes Anderson in this film–he also makes films about unconventional families and Mills adds Andersonian touches such as title cards telling us when characters were born and focusing on the books they are reading. There’s also a great emphasis on music–mostly the Talking Heads (Zumann is beaten for liking them, defamed as an “art fag”) and other punk groups of the period.
Motherhood, and its effects on a child, is the spine of the film. Bening has her own influence on Zumann, even if she never seems to get mad at him no matter what he does (a late scene has her participating in a dangerous stunt with him that reminded me of the end of The Royal Tenenbaums when Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller ride on the back of a truck), but there are other kinds of mothers. Gerwig, a lonely person who looks for solace in art and music, is recovering from cervical cancer, caused by her mother taking a fertility drug. Fanning, who at seventeen is far too intense for that age, is the daughter of a therapist who includes her in teen group therapy, a huge ethical lapse that drives them apart (it is well known that the children of mental health professionals are crazier than most).
All the performances are fine, but it’s Bening’s show. She should have been nominated for an Oscar, as her line readings and facial expressions are thrillingly authentic. She wears no makeup, wears Birkenstocks and smokes Salems (there is more smoking in this film than any I can recall that doesn’t star Humphrey Bogart) and seems to have given up on happiness, which drives Zumann crazy. But Gerwig, one of America’s more interesting actresses these days, and Fanning are almost as good.
Mills is a director to watch. 20th Century Women was one of the best of 2016.