20th Century Women

In Mike Mills’ comedy “20th Century Women,” Lucas Jade Zumann stars as Jamie, the son of an empowered, free spirited single woman (played by Annette Bening). Jamie and his mother live in a house with a few other misfits, some of whom are young women who act as his surrogate sisters. They create a unique family dynamic, though Jamie struggles to discover himself, understand his mother and grasp the wonderful and strange women in his life.

I can’t imagine anyone watching “20th Century Women” and not thinking of their mother and how much she is or isn’t like Dorothea, the character played by Annette Bening. Dorothea is a true original and her open-mindedness, gentle nature and acceptance of very odd people in her home life reminded me a great deal of my mom. Yet, Bening’s portrait of Mills’ mother is more layered and delicate than most movie moms, as there is nothing predictable about either Dorothee or this wonderful film.

So many great performances mark the supporting cast and every one of them seems so effortless and lived in. Greta Gerwig has never been better and taps into a wildness that her more “quirky” art house roles keep under wraps. Billy Crudup’s understated acting serves his character, giving us glimpses of the sadness and unfulfilled aspects of William’s just-go-with-the-flow lifestyle. Elle Fanning is always great and here, she connects with the allure and danger of someone living outside of societal expectations.

Mills wisely shows us the living situation and the lifestyles of his characters first. Then, he goes back and shows us who they are and how they wound up living together. By initially introducing his characters without proper context or with spell-it-all-out first impressions, Mills allows us to see them more as complex, endearing people and less as figures in a movie.

“20th Century Women” wears its heart on its sleeve, so allow me to be transparent as well. I had a giant crush on Bening when I was 13 (watching “The Grifters” will do that to a young man). She wound up marrying Warren Beatty and, while I’m glad they remain together, it definitely stung that my dream girl was swept away by Dick Tracy (or Bugsy Siegel, take your pick). Over the years, I was delighted to find that this gorgeous character actress became a full-throttle, force-to-be-reckoned-with film legend. “Valmont,” “Bugsy,” “The American President,” “American Beauty,” “Being Julia,” and “The Kids Are All right” are among her best known, most acclaimed performances. Yet, even in bad movies like “Running With Scissors,” “In Dreams” and “The Face of Love,” she’s the real deal. I don’t mean this lightly: her work in “20th Century Women” is her best performance yet and she’s utterly amazing in this.

“Beginners,” Mills previous film, is best remembered as the comedy/drama that showcased an Oscar winning turn by the magnificent Christopher Plummer. His latest film is even better, with a richer style, feel for its setting and multifaceted portrayal of a modern family. While “Beginners” was about fathers, this one is about mothers and the way it sometimes seems like unrelated siblings and uncle figures are sometimes forced upon us, for better or worse.

The use of voiceover and flashing forwards and backwards is handled with a sensitivity and playfulness I’ve never encountered before. Movies have been narrated by deceased characters (like Bening’s own “American Beauty”) but here, the perspective often shifts and different characters show and tell us how they will eventually turn out. This occasional jump in the film’s time line isn’t distracting but offers uniquely illuminating character studies that are truly moving and thoughtfully considered.

Lots of movies take place during the 1970/80’s and few seem to remember the decade with as much clarity and honesty as this one. The song selections, costume choices and art direction Mills chooses are just right.

“20th Century Women” celebrates individuality, the messy, deep and potent relationships sons have with their mothers and the zig-zag of life’s journeys that we foolishly expect will happen in a straight line. When it ended, it left me with a warm glow, feeling rejuvenated and mindful of my life experiences. It also made me immediately want to call my Mother.

Four Stars

originally published in MAUIWatch