In 2010 writer-director Mike Mills made Beginners, in which Christopher Plummer played a thinly veiled version of Mills’ father, who came out at gay in his 70s. Now this talented filmmaker has made another very personal movie ripped from the headlines of his own family. The Golden Globe-nominated comedy-drama 20th Century Women is about his mother — or at least someone resembling her circa 1979, when the movie is set. It is clear Mills has heard the adage, “Write what you know,” and based on the exceptional writing here, he knows this era and this personal mother/son story very well. He also is blessed to have gotten the great Annette Bening as his star, Dorothea, really a stand-in for his own somewhat eccentric but loving mom who brought him up as a single mother in his hometown of Santa Barbara.
The film explores the coming of age of 15-year-old Jamie (an excellent Lucas Jade Zumann), whose father is out of the picture and who is all raging hormones and entering that phase of life where a little guidance can go a long way. He gets it primarily from the three women of three distinct generations so integral to his life at the moment: his mom of course; Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who rents a room in their two-story house; and best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who seems to spend more time at his house than at her own. It also seems Lucas might have some longing for Julie, but even though she pops over for sleepovers in the same bed, it is all very innocent on her part at least. Abbie offers sage advice in her quirky way, and the relationship Mills develops between son and free-spirited mom clearly is derived from places he has already been in his heart.
The movie explores the inter-relationships among all these characters with a lot of smarts and recognizable human traits and foibles. It is an affectionate portrait of a time and place and intercuts news footage from the period and a great musical soundtrack to further set the tone. Many of the songs suggest the late-’70s but in fact were written for this film (nice work from composer Roger Neill). What really makes 20th Century Women sing, though, is the performances, notably the radiant one at its center with Bening as the chain-smoking Dorothea, one of the best roles of her film career. She simply dominates the film with grace, grit and a believability that dazzles. It is saying a lot that Bening has never been better. She does more with a single line of dialogue than many actors can do with a whole script.
Gerwig also is used to great effect here, turning down the quirkiness to really find a woman Lucas — and we — can like a lot. Fanning has been a revelation lately, not just here but also in Ben Affleck’s Live by Night. She gives Julie a singular personality that resonates way beyond her years and plays nicely off Zumann, who is the perfect stand-in for Mills, or what we imagine Mills might have been like since the director admits some of this stuff really did happen to him. Also excellent is Billy Crudup as William, another renter who does handiwork in return for the room. 20th Century Women marches to its own beat — one that has a very cool and recognizable rhythm. Recommended.
Megan Ellison, Youree Henley and Anne Carey are the producers of this A24 film, which is in limited release and goes wide on January 20.
Do you plan to see 20th Century Women? Let us know what you think.