Early in 20th Century Women, photographer Abbie—played by Greta Gerwig—undergoes a new project. She decides she will photograph everything she owns, everything she has brought with her in this life. These items bring with them memories and ideas, things that have helped create who she is today. Picking apart the pieces of a person and seeing them lined up can be overwhelming and sad, helping to comprehend who this person is, in fractured parts. With his first two films and now 20th Century Women, Mike Mills is giving the viewer his version of Abbie’s project: impactful pieces of his life that when put together make a vivid, beautiful biopic of sorts.
Mills’ films so far have featured mother characters, but kept them in the background, even when they remain influential in the central figure’s life. In Thumbsucker, Tinda Swinton’s Aubrey helped the main character navigate an interest in artistic pursuits in important, but non-intrusive ways. While Mills’ last film Beginners was largely a tribute to his father, it’s the few scenes with mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) that shows the different mindset that helped create Ewan McGregor’s Oliver. 20th Century Women is finally Mills’ tribute to his mother and because of that, it becomes the most fully realized piece in the Mills puzzle that has been a long time coming.
Set in 1979 Santa Barbaba, 20th Century Women is more of an ensemble piece that Mills’ past work, an Amarcord-y scattershot look at the events and people who created who he is. the Mills surrogate here is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a teenager who is discovering who exactly he is. His mother Dorothea Fields (an exceptional Annette Bening), is in her mid-fifties and afraid that she can’t provide or understand what Jamie needs to become a man. Dorothea enlists the renters at her home, the aforementioned Abbie, a punk photographer recovering from cervical cancer, and her handyman William (Billy Crudup), and Jamie’s best friend/love interest Julie (Elle Fanning), to help give Jamie what she can’t in his transition to adulthood.
Mills isn’t interested in telling a normal narrative, but gives glimpses at the people, media and ideologies that transform people. He shows how Abbie seeing The Man Who Fell to Earth motivated her to dye her hair and become more self-confident, or how reading Judy Blume allowed Julie to take hold of her sexuality. For Jamie, he’s still trying to figure out who exactly he is, and while he can receive guidance from the people around him, he has to find his own path. Mills shows that search for self-discovery can be confusing and exciting. Through his extension of Jamie, Mills shows how things as disparate as a trip to the grocery store with his mother, the post-punk of the late 70s, and feminist tomes like Sisterhood Is Powerful created the gifted writer-director we see today. This specificity could be hazardous to the messages of the film, yet Mills knows how to present this discovery and growth in a way that is personal and identifiable in equal measure.
While Mills is a gifted filmmaker, with a distinctive style that allows for omniscient narration, visual quirks and a photo book glimpses of the past, its his script that at times puts too much a silver lining around every sentence. Characters always know the exact right thing to say at every moment and even while 20th Century Women is about the uncertainty of finding your place in life, Mills’ characters show an assuredness that doesn’t always present this viewpoint. The problem with glorifying the past is that occasionally, the reality you remember might shine brighter than the truth. By recreating his own past, Mills can give every character the right words, even if it might not have happened that way, and might not be as effective that way.
Benning does personify this uncertainty perfectly in her performance, as a woman who grew up in the Depression and is now figuring out where she belongs at the end of the 70s. Benning’s ability as Dorothea to consume the world she is in without understanding its appeal is mostly told nonverbally, as a confused look during a Black Flag album can tell far more that a perfect line of Mills’ dialogue. Gerwig is also excellent as a character who must show Jamie the wonders of the world, while also warning him that the uncertainty of life can ruin all of your hopes and dreams in an instant. Both roles are integral to creating Jamie; both Benning and Gerwig perform their daunting roles with remarkable grace.
Like Thumbsucker and Beginners before it, 20th Century Women has Mills presenting the tragedies, experiences, and people that formulate us into the full human beings we all become. 20th Century Women is a rich and deeply nostalgic look at what makes life into capital-L Life. The tiny things, the interactions, the everything that makes life so genuinely beautiful. Mills has made a biopic that works because he knows how things that have created all of us, regardless of our upbringings and pasts.