30 January 2017

Speaks Reviews: 20th Century Women

"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.

She owns a perpetual fixer-upper, an old mansion near the Pacific coast of Santa Barbara, CA, circa 1979. She is 55 years old. Her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is not quite as lost as she may think, but her ways have given way to an opportunity. Her home is a revolving door of friends, acquaintances, boarders. Her two tenants are William (Billy Crudup), an ex-hippy handyman, who means well but doesn't connect with Jamie on an interest level, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-rocker with purple hair, who is recovering from a life-changing illness that has left her near hopeless for the future. Then there's Julie (Elle Fanning), the object of desire, a 17-year-old daughter of a therapist unable to cope with the idea that her best friend Jamie now wants to touch her when she sneaks in at night to sleep in his bed (Oh! How I know that torture!). Dorothea decides these two women will be able to offer him life experience that she can't give him herself.

While the main action of the plot takes place over the summer of 1979, the film holds actual time as loosely and as tightly as it feels like in the moment. So much so, that it is hard to even fathom how director Mills and his editor did it. Popular fiction and literature and self-help books of the time make appearances, in sound and sight and specificity. Popular songs, mostly punk and hardcore from the late 70s, are used to anchor thought and reflection on the current states of the characters and their pasts and where they may all end up. The most famous speech of the Jimmy Carter administration plays a key role. And the rooms of Dorothea's home seem sometimes to be shot as cutaways, much like Wes Anderson does, the fourth wall removed, allowing us to watch as we glide from room to room. He uses fast motion, sometime to quite practically move things along, sometimes touching the frame with a sort of psychedelia I've never seen before.

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.

And it's all so damn relatable, it's actually funny. I laughed my ass off. I laughed out loud more than any other movie this year.

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 ★★★


  1. Words cannot describe how much I care about this film. Love isn't strong enough of a word to describe how much I appreciate this film.

    I've seen it twice in theaters already: Friday, January 20, when it went into wide release in the Detroit area, & on Saturday, January 28. The first time I saw it, I loved it, & I got a little choked up at the end. The second time I saw it, I felt an indescribable emotional attachment to the film & its characters, an attachment I haven't felt towards a film in a while. At the end, I was so overcome by the film that I cried tears of joy & clapped joyously. I found myself really relating to Jamie: like him, I'm 15, I listen to Talking Heads, & I'm also in that time in life where I'm trying to find myself.

    Annette Bening's performance is not only the best female performance of the year, but also of Bening's career, & she was absolutely snubbed of an Oscar nomination. It's, in my opinion, one of the biggest snubs ever.

    Elle Fanning & Greta Gerwig's performances were absolutely amazing, & definitely worthy of Oscar nominations. Billy Crudup's performance was the best of his career, even better than his amazing performance in Almost Famous. And Lucas Jade Zumann's performance is an absolutely star-making performance, & it's the best breakout performance of the year.

    Mike Mills is skyrocketing up my list of the best American directors of the 21st century. After his brilliant filmmaking debut, Thumbsucker, & his absolutely amazing masterpiece, Beginners, he has made an absolutely amazing work of art here. And his screenplay feels so lifelike.

    The cinematography is stellar & breathtaking. The editing is brilliant. The costume design, production design, & makeup & hairstyling are excellent. The film score is AMAZING. THAT is the best score of the year. And the soundtrack is one of the best film soundtracks ever. (That scene where Annette Bening & Billy Crudup are dancing to The Big Country by Talking Heads (which is one of my 10 favorite songs of all time) is my favorite scene of the year). I've already ordered the CD of the soundtrack, & I've also pre-ordered the vinyl of the soundtrack.

    This is my favorite film of the year, & it's probably my favorite film of all time. It's the funniest film of the year, & the most heartfelt film of the year. And it's an absolutely beautiful testament to the women who make us who we are. And there's certainly been a lot of them who have made me the smart, funny, & film-loving person I am today.

    I don't think I've ever had as big of an emotional experience as I did when I saw 20th Century Women. And I don't think I'll have one like that for a while. It definitely is an amazing film.

    (P.S. I cannot wait until Tuesday, March 28, 2017, when 20th Century Women comes out on Blu-ray & DVD. I've pre-ordered it on Blu-ray, & I can't wait to get it).

    1. Your passion for this movie is awesome! I connect with it in all the ways you do as well, apart from being 32 and not 15. This movie would've wrecked me just the same if I saw it at your age. Talking Heads came in college for me, though. Haha.

    2. I can't help my passion for it. I just connected to it so much.

      I started listening to Talking Heads when I was 10.

      (P.S. My best friend, who REALLY wanted to see 20th Century Women, said she'd gladly be emotionally wrecked by this film. She's the only one of my friends ( alongside my other best friend, who saw the film with me) who's even heard of the film & expressed interest in seeing it. This makes me incredibly happy, as I feel like I'm no longer one of two people around my age that I know really well who appreciates real cinema. But I digress).

      Anyway... I'd see this film 10 times in theaters if I could. I just loved this film so, so, SO MUCH. (Sadly, I can't see this film 10 more times in theaters, as it is gone from all the theaters in the Detroit area after this Thursday, because people would rather see Rings & The Space Between Us than this).

    3. I'm just glad I got to see it once.