“So sweetie. I don’t know if we ever figure our lives out, and the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted. They might be just the people who show up.”
“Look, wondering if you’re happy, it’s a great shortcut to just being depressed.”
There are times in life that are rudderless, floating in an ocean of uncertainty and passive confusion. The day to day existence is all there is when one is searching, or taking a sabbatical from searching. You love as best you can. You take care of necessities to make life comfortable, but not necessarily to make it exciting. There can be an infinite number of reasons a person can get stuck and just float upon that uncertainty.
The writer and director Mike Mills crafts a sort of love letter to the aching existential pain of being a woman in his new film, “20th Century Women”. Many critics complain of the “rudderless” mentality of the film, which is actually its main strength. Life is not some grand novel with a beginning, middle, and end clearly displayed. Life is messy and does not always make sense. Who are we kidding…it never makes any sense, as director Mills outlines for us in his new film.
“20th Century Women” concerns the story of Dorothea Fields (played with convincing conviction by Annette Bening), a single mother at 55 with a teenage son in 1979 Santa Barbara. She decides to enlist the help of two other women in showing her son what it is to be a man. This is not some cliche strewn story of a mother struggling with her child, but an intelligent thought provoking look inside the life of a woman, a real red blooded woman who has had her share of disappointments and made the best possible decisions with the information she had at the time. There is a tremendous shortage of actual women in cinema that are believably realistic. Bening, along with two other tremendous actors Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig bring such subtle facets to different stages in a woman’s life under Mills’ sensitive direction. Again, we are not looking at some tear jerker “woman’s picture”, but an honest look at aging, identity crisis, sexual awakening, humor, and what it means to be honest with who you are. These women have their lives take all sorts of roads which do not necessarily lead anywhere. That is what some critics complain about. It is actually refreshing to see a story involve you in small moments, like life, instead of grand gestures.
Mike Mills script is filled with gems (like the two quotes above) and shoots in a naturalistic manner that gives you time to study faces and body language during exchanges between the characters. Aside from Bening, the excellent Greta Gerwig has expressions that lets you glimpse inside the head of her character, the feminist Abbie. Elle Fanning plays the broken, but strong woman Julie with a string of men and disappointments behind her. And let’s not forget the men in this film. Billy Crudup (always a joy to watch) brings strength and a quiet dignity to his character William. The young son of Dorothea, Jamie, is played by a strikingly naturalistic Lucas Jade Zumann. All of these actors mesh so well together that they convey to us as actual living breathing people.
One single flaw (and one that may hurt it) is the wrong headed marketing that indie studio A24 chose to go forward with. It comes across as some, for lack of a better definition, chick-flick catered to female audiences only. The poster and the trailer are evidence. The film, the actual product itself, is like reading an intimate and very involving novella (with all the characters themselves lovingly narrating certain aspects in the story at different points) filled with life and energy befitting for both intelligent male/female viewers. There is a lot to discuss about this film after seeing it for both sexes. Independent films that have no specific target are often the hardest to market. “20th Century Women” deserves good word of mouth and a wide audience.
Director Mike Mills has a unique talent; the knack for creating believable worlds (1979 details are spot on) and realistic characters who sound like us, not some pontificating super hero. See this with an audience and let the film wash over you with its centered attention to the complicated politics of what makes us human.
(director Mike Mills behind the scenes with Annette Bening)
“20th Century Women” (2016) written and directed by Mike Mills