It is no wonder Mike Mills’ latest film, 20th Century Women, has been nominated for best screenplay at this month’s Oscars. The writer-director has an incredible talent for crafting highly quotable, gently profound and introspective scenes that ooze with irresistible charm. He delivers in spades.
One of the most telling scenes occurs when Dorothea, played by Annette Bening (American Beauty), gathers around the television with her dinner guests to watch Jimmy Carter’s famous ‘crisis of confidence’ speech. The two juxtaposing responses provoked by Carter’s words underpin the conflicting sense of angst and optimism that pervaded America in the late 1970’s, a time when the flickering flames of American liberalism were on the cusp of being extinguished by the rising tide of Reaganite conservatism.
The story itself, based on Mills’ own upbringing in Santa Barbara, is a personable one. Dorothea, an unbending 55-year-old single mother, is trying to raise her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and believes she can do so without the help of a man. After admitting to knowing him “less each day” and hindered by a generational gap that is too wide reconcile, she enlists the help of two women in Jamie’s life, Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig).
Julie, a close friend of Jamie’s since kindergarten, seeks refuge from her psychiatrist mother by sneaking into his bedroom at night to – ironically – unpack their lives. After excelling in last year’s Neon Demon, Fanning does an excellent job of conveying Julie’s unwilling vulnerability which takes form in the cliché statements of youthful rebellion – smoking and sex.
It is Dorothea’s lodger, Abbie, who takes a more motherly approach to Jamie, sharing with him her passion for photography, punk music and feminist books. In amusing fashion, Jamie’s liking for the books leads to him being beaten up by one teen for questioning his sexual prowess. Perhaps it is a sign of things to come in the impending machismo-driven decade.
That is the real triumph of 20th Century Women. The film is able to tie these wider themes to a very human story. A lot of that is owed to its tremendous cast.
Of course, Bening has rightfully been receiving heaps of acclaim for her ground-breaking performance. Her delivery through cigarette-pursed lips is phenomenal but Gerwig and Fanning bring an energy, life and authenticity to the film that should not be understated. A winning combination.
Dir: Mike Mills
Scr: Mike Mills
Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
DOP: Sean Porter
Music: Roger Neill
Runtime: 119 mins