The opening frames set the tone, the universal giving way to the specific, a portrait of an era zeroing in on individual experience: an overhead shot of waves breaking on the coast; an aerial survey of the city; a Ford Galaxy bursting into flame in a grocery parking lot. “How did you get to be this person that you are?” That question is the essence of 20th Century Women, Mike Mills’ impressive followup to his 2010 triumph Beginners. If that film was a personal essay disguised as a coming-out narrative, this one is a snapshot of an era, filtered through a distinctly individual lens. It’s personal—and for the director, semi-autobiographical—art done right.
The setting is Santa Barbara ca. 1979, and the person in question is Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann). He lives with his single mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), in a large house along with their two tenants: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young artist with a shock of short red hair, and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman about Dorothea’s age. He’s also friends with Julie (Elle Fanning), whom he describes as “self-destructive” and who sleeps over often (though they never have sex). That seems like formula for a twee coming-of-age story, but as in Beginners, Mills sidesteps those expectations to deliver something far more searching and poignant.
For one, it’s less a narrative, and more a kaleidoscopic immersion into the specifics of an era, a self-portrait—not with objects or belongings, as Abbie does early on with her photography—but with the people that fill a life (in this case Jamie’s). That’s a task for which the stellar ensemble proves entirely capable. Newcomer Zumann makes for a compelling presence as the ostensible center, though he’s necessarily something of a blank slate. Meanwhile, Crudup works wonders in his (purposefully) small, but cherishable role as the sole male presence in Jamie's life. (“You don’t have very many funny lines, do you?” he’s told at one point.) But as the title suggests, it’s the women that take center stage. Fanning plays Julie’s disaffected distance with a kind of intense fragility, while Gerwig channels her screwball charm into a vibrant woman trapped by circumstance (the repercussions of cervical cancer). Bening, though, gets likely the trickiest, but most rewarding role, as Dorothea—a woman almost larger than life, a “child of the Depression,” from a time when people “never admitted that things went wrong.” Staunchly liberal, fiercely intelligent, she is the kind of woman who would invite a fireman to her birthday party by way of thanks, or who jokes about marrying Bogart in her next life.
The ostensible narrative flits and digresses, interlacing the witty, observational humor of its micro-stories with a dive into the personal histories (and futures) of each character. The film literally recounts each of their lives in spare montage and accelerated motion, accompanied by unexpectedly direct voiceover. There’s a frankness to these scenes that’s disarming, all the more for how insufficient they feel. The lingering impression is not just that of a person captured in memory, but of Time moving resolutely forward, faster than one can even begin to comprehend; it's the immensity and inevitability of what's left out. (In that respect, the film’s key image might be a post-party stroll by the coast—all darkness and faraway city light, the “action” illuminated only by the intermittent flashes of a camera.) Not for nothing does the film’s central (and possibly best) scene revolve around Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech and explicitly reference Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. What better way to depict the transient flash of the “present” and the onrush of the decade that would follow?
20th Century Women has a far more expansive canvas than Beginners, but it’s grounded in a similar specificity of experience. And although it’s ostensibly close in approach to Sundance quirk, there’s an intelligent, discursive quality to Mills’ construction that sets it apart. For one, there’s the generosity and nuance of the script. For another, there’s the confidence of its editing, which elevates what could be arthouse cliché into something far more resonant. But there’s also its lucid honesty of perspective which preempts any charges of hollow quirk or narcissism. In particular, the way it depicts Jamie’s burgeoning liberalism and ideological exploration (accelerated by Abbie’s influence with feminist books like Our Bodies, Ourselves) is revealing. Given its free-form structure, the film can lapse into unevenness—a dinner-party scene that ends up revolving around the word “menstruation” feels like a less elegant repetition of previous scenes—but Mills rarely loses sight of its earnest, searching core.
Despite its modest trappings, 20th Century Women reveals itself to be a surprisingly ambitious, freewheeling exploration of a precipice moment—a vision of the histories and futures that lie on either side and the unalterable fact of them. And though it may at times feel a touch obvious or easy (such as in the soaring final images), it’s clear-eyed enough to recognize that insufficiency. After all, was “As Time Goes By” ever anything but bleak?