Working as both a coming of age and coming of middle age story, 20th Century Women delivers with large laughs and small heartfelt moments. Mike Mills finds a companion piece to his critically acclaimed Beginners from 2010. Much like his previous film, Mills continues to tell stories about everyday people and the intimate moments that define their lives. This time working with an ensemble, he finds a way to develop the core characters and make them more relatable to the viewer. The vibrant cinematography and flashy effects help to show off the sun soaked California summer in the late 70s. Mills acknowledges the time period with respect as the characters learn to adapt to the pre-80s trends.
Played brilliantly by Annette Bening, Dorothea is a single mother at a point in her life where she begins to feel that she is losing touch with her son but more importantly, herself. Not having a father figure in his life frightens Dorothea as she gets the sense that he is distancing himself from her. Bening plays this complicated and conflicted character with compassion as she engulfs herself into the role. Though there aren’t any loud “Oscar scenes”, she stays composed throughout the film and offers more than a glimpse of reality. She seeks change but is content on continuing her daily routine as she tries to reconnect with her son. Lucas Jade Zumann plays her son Jamie, a 15 year old who begins to look at life from a different perspective as he starts to mature. He lashes out at his mother as he thinks her life is at a stalemate and that she should be focusing on herself, not him. The scenes between them never escalate into anything more than loud yelling, they love each other and clearly care about one another. The chemistry between them is genuine and their scenes are heartfelt and hilarious.
In need of change, Dorothea calls on Abbie, a twentysomething punk photographer who lives with them. Jamie’s best friend Julie is also pulled into this predicament as Dorothea believes she knows Jamie better than anyone. Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, is spunky and outgoing as her guidance leaves a lasting impression on Jamie. Elle Fanning steals scenes as Julie, the precocious and promiscuous 17 year old who is content with being just friends while Jamie wants to expand on the relationship. Both ladies are honest and encourage Jamie to branch out and discover what the world has to offer. Billy Crudup also appears as William, the hippyish handyman who lives on the second floor of the house while he tries to map out his next move. These three characters carry the bulk of the load when it comes to the comedy but still manage to get in a few scenes that have potential to tug on heartstrings.
Mike Mills has thoroughly crafted a project with an ensemble of developed characters with unique personalities who all relate to each other in one way or another. Selling this as a film in which people find themselves would be an understatement. Throughout the 118 minute runtime you relate to the characters and understand the trials and tribulations that each of them are going through. They’re all at points in their life where they are in the pursuit of happiness and purpose. Led by another award caliber performance from Annette Bening, 20th Century Women finds its groove early and rarely sputters.