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D: Mike Mills / 119m

Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup

Mike Mills’ last movie was the appealing and very enjoyable Beginners (2010), in which Christopher Plummer gave an Oscar-winning performance. Six years on and Mills has upped his game considerably with 20th Century Women, a semi-autobiographical tale set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. By writing a script that’s much closer to home than his previous outings, Mills has made a quirky, sensitive, and much more mature feature, and one that impresses on a variety of levels.

It begins with declarations of life, as divorced, single mother Dorothea (Bening) recounts giving birth to her son, Jamie (Zumann). Despite being a single mother, and receiving no support from her ex-husband, Dorothea views those early years when it was just her and Jamie with warm-hearted nostalgia. But finances being what they were, Dorothea was forced to take in lodgers. In 1979, with Jamie aged fifteen, he and his mother live with Abbie (Gerwig), a budding photographer, and William (Crudup), a carpenter whose work on the house is often paid for in lieu of rent. Abbie is like a big sister to Jamie, but he and William are virtually strangers to each other. Add in the presence of Julie (Fanning), Jamie’s best friend (and object of his romantic affections), and Dorothea begins to believe that her son, because he doesn’t have a father (or father figure) to guide him, and because she feels as if her connection with him is slipping away, decides he needs help “understanding women” and being a “good man”.

To this end, Dorothea recruits Abbie and Julie and persuades them to help Jamie learn more about life and relationships and women. When she tells him this, he reacts angrily and goes off with some of his friends to L.A. to see a concert. When he gets back he finds out that Julie has slept with someone and thinks she might be pregnant. Leading on from that, Dorothea advises Jamie that Abbie, who is in remission from cervical cancer, will be attending a doctor’s appointment and may receive bad news; she asks that he be at home in case she needs some support (Dorothea can’t be there). Instead, he goes with her. The news is both good and bad, but Abbie is glad of Jamie’s presence, and she starts to “teach” him about women by giving him books on feminism.

Jamie’s “education” causes a growing rift between him and his mother, and it provokes a straining of the relationships between Abbie and Dorothea, Jamie and Julie, and William and Dorothea. The friendship between Jamie and Julie is tested the most: an admission made by Julie causes him to question his feelings for her, but she manages to persuade him to take a trip along the coast with her. In San Luis Obispo, things come to a sticking point and Jamie leaves Julie at the motel where they’re staying. Julie alerts Dorothea, and she heads there along with William and Abbie. It proves to be a turning point for everyone, and the status quo is irrevocably affected.

There is so much more to 20th Century Women that any proper synopsis would run to thousands of words instead of mere hundreds. What is mentioned above is only a fraction of the material that Mills has collated for his screenplay, but almost none of it feels extraneous or superficial. Each scene acts in service to the character(s) appearing in it, and each scene helps to further the narrative and the myriad of subplots that float along waiting for the next occasion when they can be exploited. Mills has written such a carefully constructed screenplay that there are dozens of moments that echo or resonate in relation to both earlier and future moments (yes, it’s that good a script), and there are a similar amount of subtle references and non-linear connections that add to the quality and the depth of his writing.

Mills has also taken the time to make the various characters memorable and credible and unique in their own way, with special attention given to the relationships between them all. Dorothea is an odd mix of honest maternal concern and inappropriate parenting, wanting her son to be a “good man” but still wishing he could remain her little boy. The emotional tug-of-war that occurs through these warring factions leave Dorothea looking and sounding a little distracted at times, as if the notion of being a mother requires abstract thought for it to make sense (to her, at least). Bening perfectly captures the hopeful, yet curiously distant nature of Jamie’s mother with her customary skill and attention to character detail, making her by turns alarmingly obtuse and/or resolutely indifferent, and fixated by love at the same time. It’s a fine balancing act, and one that would have challenged most actresses, but Bening carries it off with seeming ease, displaying an emotional and intellectual dexterity in the role that serves as a reminder of just how fine an actress she is.

There are equally impressive turns from Fanning and Gerwig. As the seemingly carefree (and care-less) Julie, Fanning shows the character’s innate vulnerability even when she’s trying to be offhand or dismissive of her feelings, and there are times when Julie seems determined to suffer the fate she believes others expect her to. This kind of disturbing fatalism can be difficult to pull off (if it’s given too much emphasis it can come across as irreparably narcissistic), but Fanning acquits herself well, grounding the character through the discomfort and confusion she feels at being regarded solely as an object of desire. Gerwig is just as impressive as Abbie, taking the character’s history and using it to portray a young woman who speaks for the rights of others, but who seems unable to heed her own advice when it comes to the opposite sex. Like Jamie, she lacks a father figure in her life, and this informs her behaviour far more than she would like to admit, and when she’s challenged over this, she can only retaliate, and in doing so, deflect the pain she’s all too aware she’s causing herself. It’s a very subtle role indeed, but Gerwig carries it off with style and confidence.

On the male side, Crudup is the kind of sensitive, caring man who always appears attractive to women, even though they won’t ever commit to a sustained relationship with him, and the actor portrays him with an easy-going attitude that plays off well against the stresses and strained emotions of the female characters. And then there’s Zumann, a young actor showing a lot of promise, and more than capable of keeping up with his more experienced co-stars. Like a lot of child actors, Zumann has the ability to be casually audacious, and show the kind of emotional range that some adult actors never achieve. He’s intuitive, adventurous, quick off the mark, and he has the gift of making it seem that he’s much more wiser than his years. His scenes with Bening are touching, and Mills is to be congratulated for finding a young actor who can share a scene with her and not be intimidated or do anything that doesn’t match the effort she herself is putting in.

By setting the movie in 1979, Mills makes use of that period’s history to provide a backdrop of social and political upheaval that compliments the upheavals going on in the Fields’ household. He also plays deliberate havoc with the characters’ pasts and futures, illuminating them in a way that adds even more resonance to the main storylines. And while it can be an emotionally messy movie at times, Mills has become such a strong, confident movie maker that he can be forgiven the occasional misstep. He’s said in the past that, “Making a movie is so hard, you’d better make movies about something you really know about.” By making this semi-autobiographical tale so moving and funny and poignant and life-affirming, he’s certainly done that, and to an incredibly rewarding degree.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that constantly surprises and impresses, 20th Century Women is that rare thing: a picture about women told from a male perspective and infused with a great deal of understanding and respect; with a clutch of great performances, and an equally great soundtrack to accompany it, Mills and his cast and crew have created a movie that is so good, repeat viewings will only make it look and sound better.