20th Century Women has a certain melancholic euphoria about it that I can’t quite articulate with words. A soul-cleansing, masterful tapestry of multi-faceted characters and their experiences, the film’s beauty is characterised predominantly by Mike Mills’ exceptional screenplay. Based in part on his own mother, Mills pens an enriching and captivating amalgamation of scenes, woven together by the sublime performances of the wonderful ensemble cast. Annette Bening, an actress who is quite frankly under-utilised in leading roles, is mesmerising as Dorothea, a single mother in her mid-fifties who enlists the help of her twenty-something lodger, punk photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and free-spirited neighbour, Julie (Elle Fanning), in the bringing up of her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). The film explores the impact of these three complex women on the life and coming-of-age of Jamie, as well as a multitude of imposing themes and questions which underpin the lives of each of the characters respectively.
Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, 20th Century Women draws upon concepts of motherhood, femininity, and coming of age (at any age). What was so startling about a film which is underpinned by fairly simplistic ideas is the extent to which aspects of each character’s journey, perspective and personality resonated with me, despite the polarity of their ages, circumstances, upbringings and aspirations. Even the way in which I am able to talk about these characters as though they are real people I could sit and drink wine with is a testament to the nuance, care and understanding with which they have been written. Mike Mills was evidently very concerned with paying the absolute right amount of attention to each character, moulding them each into hugely central components of the film, yet successfully maintaining the balance between realism and charm. Every character is a total contradiction: they never feel contrived, yet they each fully embody both the nostalgic charm of the era and what it means to be a human being.
Whether capturing the heady sense of freedom which comes from hurtling along the highway in a car, lingering on the rippling turquoise of the ocean’s surface, or channelling human connection through the careful composition of a room full of people, the camera acts as a vessel for joy in 20th Century Women, without ever interfering with the audience’s perception of events. In simpler terms, the film will ultimately yield a different experience depending on what you bring to it. It’s both hypnotic and therapeutic, akin to reconnecting with an old after a long period of separation, or stumbling upon a moment of realisation in the midst of unrelenting uncertainty, or clambering into bed after the longest of days. Mills creates characters who know exactly what to say, yet also find themselves in the same unanswerable predicaments as we, the viewers. Every second is warm, comforting and I couldn’t quite shake off the the inexplicable feeling of wanting to cry.
Structurally, the film steers away from any pivotal, overtly climactic moments, yet allows the most monumental periods of one’s life to play out in a completely enrapturing fashion. In this vein, it resembles a motion picture version of a kitchen noticeboard, adorned with ramshackle photographs, memos, to-do lists and phone numbers: a collection of the most transformative and memorable snippets of life, blended seamlessly together in the most uneventful, yet glorious way. Elements of the late 1970s were also wonderfully captured, to the point where audience members of any age could tangibly feel the uncertainty of America as it braced itself to step into a new political and technological era. Accompanied by the use of archive-style footage and a plethora of befitting punk and new wave songs, such as the likes of The Raincoats, Talking Heads and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the free-thinking, anachronistically unorthodox approach to life embodied by these characters was encompassed perfectly by the stylistic and musical choices accompanying every scene. Quite simply, I could’ve basked in the warmth of this film forever.