When Mike Mills made Beginners back in 2010, it was an intensely autobiographical film, chronicling a version of his relationship with his father, who had come out as gay very late in his life. It rode a tide of good feeling to a Supporting Actor win for Christopher Plummer, and it seemed to create a platform for Mills to go on to bigger and better things. It was a bit of a surprise, then, when Mills took six years to release his follow-up, 20th Century Women; this is not exactly a case of striking while the iron is hot. Of course, Beginners was an intensely personal film for Mills, so it is certainly understandable that a second film following a similar trajectory takes time and care to mount his project the right way. Sometimes that can take six years.
Mills turns his eye from father to mother with 20th Century Women. The film takes place in 1979, following a boarding house run by Dorothea (Annette Bening), mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman), a 15 year old boy struggling with a rapidly changing society and rapidly changing emotions. Dorothea, following the belief that “it takes a village to raise a child,” conscripts her tenants, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who enjoys pottery in his downtime, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something punk feminist and cervical cancer survivor, as well as Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help raise him into a smart and respectable man, filling the void of his missing father and show him more sides of the world than she had been exposing him to. It’s a volatile time for Jamie, confused by his feelings and blossoming sexual urges, seduced by the burgeoning underground bohemian punk movement in nearby Los Angeles. Dorothea has a pretty open mind, but as Abbie and Julie fill his head with conflicting emotions and countercultural beliefs, his relationship with his mom begins to strain, and she begins to fear she might be losing her son as she sacrifices her own free time and happiness to make sure he can live a better life.
Beginners felt more like a performance showcase for Christopher Plummer, and while the core cast of 20th Century Women is larger, the buzz coming out of the New York Film Festival where it debuted that it was a similar sort of platform, in this case for Annette Bening. Mills at least has quite the taste and abilities in picking venerable elder statesmen and women of Hollywood to lead his films, and while Bening doesn’t work as much as she used to (or, arguably, should) these days, she remains without a doubt a titan of the industry. Paired here with Fanning and Gerwig as their own sorts of generational maternal figures, even if one is barely still a teenager, 20th Century Women acts as more of an ensemble piece than Mills’ previous film, and, generally, is the better for it. While Bening is as excellent as ever, she doesn’t dominate the film, allowing it to cast a more wide-ranging net of perspective and ideology, making this film feel more like a film full of performances than a performance with a film ensconcing it. This is perhaps a minor distinction, but the resulting product feels more satisfying. It still allows Bening to captivate and commandeer the screen as few women have been able to do as well as she does, but it also gives more credence to the other voices in the film. It just feels so good to see Bening in a role like this again, arguably her biggest since The Kids Are All Right (which, like Beginners, was released in 2010). It’s a thorny role, ping ponging between a sort of free-spirited belief that Jamie can and should do what he wants with an undercurrent of traditional depression-era values under which she grew up, all serving to mask the loneliness and isolation that has come from her divorce and her lack of desire to find a replacement companion. But for Bening, all of this is maddeningly effortless (no one should be allowed to be this good this easily), and that Old Hollywood sense of grace that fits so well within the matriarchal archetype. Movies exist because of actresses like Annette Bening, and there are few pleasures more immediate than watching her ply her trade.
And as monumental as Bening is, this is still an ensemble, with Fanning (playing sort of an enjoyable mirror image to her The Neon Demon ingenue) and Billy Crudup are dependable in their supporting roles, as is relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann. Greta Gerwig probably comes out the rosiest of the non-Bening cast, continuing a year of contrasts as she bounced between quirky indies like Maggie’s Plan and Weiner-Dog and establishment art house awards darlings like this film and Jackie. Hers is a talent that can sneak up on you when you’re not paying attention. That quirk that came from establishing roles in the likes of Greenberg or Frances Ha or last year’s utterly excellent though mostly ignored Mistress America can make it easy to overlook the gravitas that she always brings to her roles, cutting through that veneer to the heart of her character with incisive skill, and here, with a short-cropped, swooping dyed red haircut and all sorts of shirts glorifying the likes of Lou Reed or the Talking Heads, wrecked but not defeated by her fight with cancer and funneling all of that energy into art and photography and teaching Jamie about feminism and the power and importance of the female orgasm. It’s the sort of character that could easily be a parody of itself, a late 70’s feminist icon, but Gerwig keeps her grounded in that war between her personal and sexual insecurities, the sense that she can talk a big game but the follow through isn’t always that easy when personal experiences get in the way.
The only place Mills really seems to misstep lies in his almost psychotic devotion to dousing his film in the culture of 1979, often stopping the flow of a scene for a random montage of photos of punk or glam icons of the era as Jamie and his friends go to hardcore shows. Most of the driving sequences are tinged with that 70’s era rainbow shadowing, but there’s no point to it and no visual analogue throughout the rest of the film, making it look like Mills got bored and decided to slap an Instagram filter on those shots to make them feel more retro. It’s in these moments, or the sort of scenes where the older folks listen to punk records and don’t “get it,” that 20th Century Women feels like it’s pressing, like the naturalism of the rest of the film is overtaken by the mise-en-scène and Mills’ extreme desire to make it really painfully staggeringly obvious that yes, this film takes place in the late 70’s. These flourishes serve to break the spell that Mills’ script and his ensemble’s performance do so well to cast, making 20th Century Women feel more like a construct than a story, but on balance, these moments only serve to chip away at the armor of the film’s otherwise excellent story and performances without harming that foundation. This is a more accomplished and whole film than Beginners and if Mills can keep up his current trajectory, he’ll continue to be one to watch in the future.