"Then it looks so real
I can feel it.
Then it feels so real
I can taste it.
Then it tastes so real
I can hear it.
Then it sounds so real
I can see it.
So why can't I touch it?"
(from a 1979 song by The Buzzcocks)
Mike Mills has a way of creating unusual sensations in the audience. Visuals so real and relatable you feel the elation lifting you out of your seat as if to be made lighter by the comfort of seeing a past life so close to your own. Isolated, staged images, stock footage, photographs, facial expressions, memories, thoughts, all blended together as your own dreamy adolescent musings or the remembrance of them as an adult. I've no doubt done a bad job of getting the point across. To appreciate a film of Mike Mills is to see one.
This one, a follow-up to Beginners, the semi-autobiographical story of his father coming out and finding love late in life, is 20th Century Women, the semi-autobiographical story of his mother figuring out how to get him through his teen years without a masculine presence. I found myself recalling Chuck Pahlaniuk a la Fight Club, "We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is the answer we need." Well, for Dorothea (Annette Bening), that seems to be the only option.
The way it all seems to work so well is credit to Mills as a screenwriter, now with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film shifts voiceover in such a way as I've never seen. All of the characters exposit and explain and remember, even speak of a future of which we only get small glimpses. But they also talk to each other in honest truths. They say things that actual people say without fear of embarrassment because they truly care for each other. So many movies miss this, that sometimes its best to forsake the comfort of the audience in an attempt to make them feel. This is a film that treats women with respect and has them talk about basic issues women face. The women of its title have periods and talk about it. They have sex and talk about it. They have dealt with miscarriages and unwanted pregnancies. They have gone to Planned Parenthood for counsel and help. They have really sage advice about and for men that is universal to men, all men.
The masterstroke on another level the casting. All are perfectly cast, but let's focus on Annette Bening, who is due an Oscar and didn't quite make the cut this year. She is a force to be reckoned with. Just as the film uses unexpected visual cues to lift us out of ourselves, so does Bening's face. Her Dorothea is an unconventional type, the type to ask the school principal why it matters Jamie missed some school if he had something else he had to do that day. Only it's not that she asks, it's that she looks at the principal with such incredulity. She looks the same way at anyone who challenges her, so challenging them. Mills shows us her face, and the way it changes. He does this a lot. It's the right call. It's powerful.
Late in the final act, I caught a small twinge of repetitiveness. I began to feel that all the mother-son dialogues were too many and that I still didn't feel like I knew Jamie, who it seems the movie should be about. But then I realized...This movie doesn't have "boy" in the title. It is about these "women" and their journeys. The boy, who I relate to most certainly, is a bystander, getting to see, just as the audience is, how they are, have, and will shape him into being a man.
On a Personal Note
When I figured it all out, I got the purpose behind Mills use of that Buzzcocks song I listed at the start. I thought of the tall summer blond beauties of my own youth, the older women who taught me things I may not have been ready for, the mother who looked at those who would hold me back with incredulity, memories full and real even romanticized I can feel them with every sense. And I want to touch them.
20th Century Women
dir. Mike Mills, 2016
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★