Director/writer Mike Mills has created a touching and well-crafted nod of love and appreciation to his mother with “20th Century Women.” Through the semi-autobiographical story set in Santa Barbara in 1979, Mills looks at the influence three women has on a teenage boy.
At the center of these feminine influences is Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a single mother having doubts she can raise her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), to be a proper man. She loves him dearly but can’t escape the harsh reality that her impact on his life tends to stop at the front door of the boarding house they operate.
She turns to Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young woman with a passion for photography and punk music, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a teen-age friend of her son whose sexual freedoms don’t extend to Jamie. Dorothea trusts them with helping Jamie find his way.
There is a man in Jamie’s life, William (Billy Crudup), a free spirit who works as a handyman. The only problem is that William has his own problems when it comes to life.
It’s clear that the most important 20th century woman is Dorothea. Mills has written her to be a loving person trying to find the middle ground between giving her son his freedom and holding on as long as possible. This comes through in beautiful style through the most compelling, deep and complete performance of Bening’s career.
From the way she deftly uses a lit Salem cigarette to accent a word to her painful attempt to dance to punk music, Bening has buried herself deep in this character. She has embraced the role so much that it’s easy to feel the love, pain, confusion, hope and uncertainties she faces when dealing with her son.
The film also features amazing performances by Gerwig and Fanning. Both play their roles with a passion that comes through even the most mundane of conversations. Mills uses these women as the mile markers in Jamie’s life, with Fanning’s role representing the frustrations of his present and Gerwing’s character acting as the goal he could achieve with only a little work.
One of the smartest moves Mills makes is making Jamie such a real character. Instead of the bratty or overly confident teen that general pops up in a coming-of-age tale, Zumann plays Jamie as a young man who is curious about the world, has found a growing interest in sex, is confused about his place in the world and is eager to know where he’s going. In other words, he plays an average teen.
The entire film is a series of contrasts, from the women in Jamie’s life to the way Mills has shot the movie. He has no problem going from a standard image to one where the world is blurred into a flood of colors. There are scenes enveloped in black, while others pop with primary hues.
This mix of styles makes the movie play like fading memories or the snippets of dreams that disappear in the sunlight. Combined with the rundown nature of the boarding house that is being renovated and Mills has visually captured the same spirit of change and growth he’s given his actors to play.
But, Mills has enough skill to not allow his visuals to overshadow the players. This is particularly true with Bening, who gives the movie an emotional core that is maternally solid. With that kind of anchor, it’s nearly impossible for a movie to fail.