With such a stellar cast and an acclaimed director, it comes as some surprise that it has taken Mike Mills' '20th Century Women' so long to see a release in Australia. Even though it was released to glowing reviews in the U.S. at the end of last year, it has suffered similarly to 'Get Out' and 'A Monster Calls' with continuous distribution delays. It's a great pity, because the lack of exposure for the film here will result in many not being as aware of it as they should be, and missing out on the gorgeous, often magical experience the film offers.
Partly based on Mills' childhood and set in 1979, the film looks at teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, 'Sinister 2') and the major relationships in his life, all of whom are women - his wonderful blunt mother Dorothea (Annette Bening, 'American Beauty', 'Ruby Sparks'), a troubled boarder living them called Abbie (Greta Gerwig, 'Frances Ha', 'Jackie') and his best friend and crush Julie (Elle Fanning, 'Maleficent', 'The Neon Demon'). Concerned about the lack of male influence in his life, Dorothea turns to Abbie and Julie to help teach Jamie what it is to be a man, but from a woman's perspective. With the world shifting into the cultural chaos of the 80s and a gulf beginning to emerge between himself and his mother, Jamie has to find a way to navigate what growing up means to him while taking in the guidance being offered him.
Executed with gentle assuredness and often thrilling imagination, '20th Century Women' is one of those films you can comfortably sink into the nostalgia of without it allowing you to be complacent. Mills' Oscar-nominated screenplay crackles with wit and humanity, its greatest achievement being the beautifully crafted characters. The tremendous talent of the cast goes a long way to making them work, but the foundation is very much there in there in the screenplay. His direction is similarly witty and gentle, mixing many storytelling devices and styles that by all rights should not fit this nicely together. Multiple narrations, titles and documentary source images and footage all contribute to constructing not just the external world and concocting a vivid sense of the fading 70s and the emerging punk world of the 80s, but also the complex internal world of the characters. These montages aren't always successful, but more often they craft breathtaking moments of magic and sadness. One moment in particular, where Julie explains to Jamie her perspective on female sexuality, sings with tenderness and astute intelligence. Sean Porter ('Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter', 'Green Room') once again delivers gorgeous images and textures with his cinematography, bringing this world shimmeringly to life in a way that feels less like an Instagram filter and more immediate and alive. Mills keeps the film moving at a gentle, at times sleepy pace, and while the narrative does feel like it meanders occasionally and falls into a number of American independent cinema clichés (there's a scene where all the characters dance together to a song on the radio that feels a bit too derivative), the moments that make the film feel more distinct leave a more lasting impression.
Executed with gentle assuredness and often thrilling imagination, '20th Century Women' is one of those films you can comfortably sink into the nostalgia of but without it allowing you to be complacent.
With such rich emotional material, this exceptional cast makes the absolute most of it, turning in hilarious and deeply moving performances. Gerwig and Fanning steal the film, grappling with Abbie and Julie's struggle to define their place in the world with great integrity. Gerwig is consistently heartbreaking but never without falling into melodrama, and Fanning prevents Julie from falling into the trap of the knowing teen dream girl, revelling in her acidic streak and sense of anarchy. Bening doesn't quite strike gold as the others do, but only because this is a character we've seen from her before. That doesn't stop her being an absolute delight, her performance full of wit and buried tenderness. Her chemistry with Lucas Jade Zumann is terrific, all the more important because it ends up being the heart of the film. Zumann could have been swamped by the enormous talent around him, but he holds his own beautifully against Bening, Gerwig and Fanning, turning in a moving performance of teenage angst that feels genuine rather than familiar. Rounding off the cast is Billy Crudup as Dorothea's other boarder William. It's a fine performance, but the material he has to work with isn't as rich as that of the women.
Filmmakers digging into their pasts and childhoods for inspiration isn't new by any means, but the way that Mike Mills has approached his - without being clouded by nostalgia and with a clear sense of perspective - allows '20th Century Women' to enchant in a way that is entirely its own. A beautiful screenplay, astute and imaginative direction, gorgeous cinematography and mesmerising performances coalesce into one of those little gems that can emerge from American independent cinema. It may have taken a long time to get to us, but it has been well worth the wait.