It was within the first fifteen minutes of Mike Mills’ new film 20th Century Women that I felt the pure exhilaration of watching character driven arthouse cinema, something that happens so rarely. It was more than a decade ago that I discovered this writer-director with his debut indie film Thumbsucker – an odd film about a young man with an oral fixation – and I knew he had more to come, especially in the deep character department. Following it up in 2010 with Beginners, the film would earn Christopher Plummer a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and would put Mills on the map for filmmakers of note. Now he has released his crowning achievement so far, a film that is infinitely satisfying, having an incredibly original identity against a backdrop of lush character building.
At the center of the story is Jamie, a high school teen growing up in the late 70s raised by his single mother Dorothea, played by Annette Bening in an award-worthy performance. She runs a sort of boarding house with two tenants, William, a jack of all trades Mr. Fix-It and Abbie, a former New York City wild child who returns to her home state of California to deal with some health issues. Also frequenting the house is Julia, Jamie’s longtime best friend who happens to be the girl of his dreams as well. As Jamie comes of age, all these players help in shaping the person that he is becoming, to the soundtrack of the time including Black Flag and The Talking Heads.
I can not stress this enough. If Annette Bening isn’t nominated or a winner of the best actress Academy Award then there is something seriously wrong with the voting body. She is simply incredible and shows why she is one of the most important actresses we have working today. The soul that she imbues in Dorothea makes the character so endearing and beautiful and draws you in completely. Her brilliance extends onto the others, like Greta Gerwig, my crush, who delivers as always and Elle Fanning, who had an incredible 2016, rising to the top of the field of young actresses. Billy Crudup, playing William, proves how much of an irreplaceable asset he is, a very underappreciated actor in my opinion, and holds himself up with the young Lucas Jade Zumann, who plays Jamie, the only males in the cast.
On the outside, the title of 20th Century Women seems to be just about the three leads but Mills has a deeper meaning to this as our characters are often reading from the works of authors like Susan Sontag, Judy Blume and much more. This film celebrates the works of these trailblazers and sources of inspiration in such an elating way that it’s hard to escape this film with being on a little bit of a high. As I’ve stated, deep character arthouse films are few and far between and, more so, are hardly executed to a fully satisfying standard. Mike Mills hits every note in a correct fashion and leaves you glued to the screen as each character opens up to you like a proverbial flower. If you love the art of cinema, 20th Century Women can not be overlooked, a real masterpiece. 5/5