Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Fourteen

#14 — 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)

It dismays me to know that 20th Century Women is a period piece, roughly as removed in time from the era it depicts as, say, Steven Spielberg’s 1987 World War II drama, Empire of the Sun, and four times as distant as George Lucas’s American Graffiti, a cinematic breakthrough in nostalgic pining. An autobiographical tribute to the women writer-director Mike Mills learned from as a boy, 20th Century Women is set in 1979, and I was just old enough in that bygone year to attest to the fundamental accuracy of the film. There are the usual signifiers of clothes, belongings, and music. More impressively, Mills has recreated the feel of the time, a moody haze as the long hangover of the nineteen-sixties gradually gave way to the gleaming sheen of the nineteen-eighties. It’s one thing to strategically stock sets with prop room artifacts and thrift store finds; it’s quite another to capture an essence, as honest and romantic as an echo.

The film centers on fifteen-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), growing up in a large, rickety home with his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening). An older woman with a bohemian bent, Dorothea presides over a bustling home, which includes a post-collegiate woman (Greta Gerwig) still navigating the transition from rebellious youth to a version of adulthood with some version of her fierce principles as well as a rugged, sensitive handyman (Billy Crudup). Rounding out the ad hoc family is Jamie’s slightly older friend Julie (Elle Fanning), a wounded bird who understandably inspires unique pangs of affection in Jamie. The plot is loose and episodic. Mills is more invested in providing a truthful rendering of what it feels like for Jamie to learn and grow around this group of distinctive people, how he formulates a sense of self by mirroring other, or perhaps rebelling against them.

The late nineteen-seventies setting provides more than flavor in 20th Century Women, and it similarly has greater purpose than accurately adhering to the calendar pages associated with Mills’s own experiences. Mills commits to understanding the how and why of the era as a formative time, the ways in which the society around him would feed a person’s identity and future. Whether the mix of academic reasoning and pop theorizing in consideration of gender roles or the ways that clashing music styles — the pummeling punk of Black Flag, or the arty deconstructions of Talking Heads — endeavored to erase all that had come before in favor of something new, anything new.

It’s clear that the forgiveness of memory partially shifts the hue of the incidents Mills spins into humorous fiction, but he rejects any inklings he might have had towards sentimentality. That’s partially achieved through the tough but kind performances, especially that of Annette Bening. As a mother who was — for the era, in particular — somewhat older when she had her only child, Bening is stretching across an extra-long generation gap, and she shows the strain of it as well as the simple grace that comes from doing her best, for her son, for her friends, and for herself. 20th Century Women honors those efforts and those choices, acknowledging that, for absolutely everyone, there’s no definitive instructions to getting life right.

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