NYFF review: 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

The title of Mike Mills’ new movie, which held its world premiere over the weekend at the New York Film Festival, comes with caveats. While the film is called 20th Century Women, and top-bills three extraordinary actresses as its stars, it is actually the story of a man (Lucas Jade Zumann), and a very young one at that, at age 15. The film is in actual fact a bildungsroman, located in a very specific geography and history in 1979 California, and adds a twist to your regular ’70s coming-of-age tale by being filtered through the perspective of three important women in his life who essentially ‘raise’ him in their own different ways. It is also a loving ode to great actresses and great women and drives home the universal theme that many people have to do the growing up when a kid goes through puberty.

Some viewers might compare this to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and the presence of Billy Crudup might not help, but this is a different sort of bildungsroman in the sense that the primary subject remains opaque and is essentially a supporting character in his own story. The film then daringly shifts the brunt of coping with puberty and all the changes that come with it to the boy’s depressed and lonely middle-aged mother Dorothea, played with remarkable grace, warmth, and sadness by the always watchable Annette Bening. Mills has claimed that Dorothea is based on his own mother and one senses while watching the movie that Mills might be exorcising many of his own demons through this film, though there are plenty of laughs along the way.

Puberty can be hard and confusing for a lot of young men, and the film addresses that concern right away in many amusing ways. “What is it to be a man?” is the question that seems the fundamental problem to crack during adolescence for young men, and some wry souls might say that you never really answer that question throughout your life. There is a lot of amusement to be had with Jamie learning the conception of a ‘man’ from three women at different stages in their lives. A current tenant of Dorothea’s, and a free-spirited pixie, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) crams his head with feminist theory so that the boy learns about the elusive female orgasm and his absolute duty as a good man to make sure he makes it happen for his partner before even losing his virginity. His pedantic discourse on the topic (learned through books) to his playground friends and his mother results in much hilarity. There’s also his two-years-older girl friend, not girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who literally sleeps with him every night in the same bed but refuses to have sex with him.

The bitter sting of being friendzoned by a girl you like, the annoying snooping of over-concerned parents, the confusion of competing advice that everyone seems to have for you at that age – all are addressed by Mills along with many other perils of growing up. So much so that the film can sometimes feel like a collection of neuroses being worked through. But Mills to his credit always keeps the tone feather-light. There are precious conversations about what the meaning of happiness is and all that, but the film never seeks to be ‘important’; it remains at heart a funny comedy about the dysfunction of growing up in a particular time and place.

Mills’ script is smart, well-structured and well thought out, as Dorothea essentially recruits Abbie and Julie to help make a man out of her son. There is no plot to speak of, as such, but the film keeps moving along nicely as there is plenty of incident and play among all the main characters. Billy Crudup’s William (also a tenant at Dorothea’s house) should be added to the list of aforementioned characters, an all-purpose handyman and a gently caricatured but still nicely shaded alpha male that Jamie should look up to and learn from but doesn’t. Mills’ greatest strength is taking this quintet of characters and grouping them in ever new and interesting combinations so that how these five characters interact with each other and react to one another becomes quite entertaining. And that’s also down to how good all five actors are in their roles.

Annette Bening still holds the ability to command the screen and though it seems she rarely gets good roles these days, here is a very good one and Bening excels. One senses Mills’ most generous move in her characterization – growing older and observing the youth around you can make you regard your intrusive parents during puberty with renewed compassion and appreciation – and Bening pitches this portrayal perfectly, somewhere between deadpan and bemused, but always loving and willing to be open-minded. Her performance is both genuinely funny and strikingly moving.

Elle Fanning is also a revelation in the part of a precocious, sexually-active teen who is wise and smart beyond her years, and Fanning, cutting through her naturally shy demeanor, crafts a very confident, liberated, and free-thinking young woman of the ’70s. A scene where she talks about her first-ever period to a roomful of adult dinner-party guests is uproarious.

And then there’s Gerwig, who seems like she has played a part like this before, but still brings a lot of the vulnerable charm that seems natural to her. When Gerwig plays wacky characters, they still seem like real breathing creations and it’s a testament to the great actress’s own ingratiating embrace of eccentricity that makes her so perfect in these parts.

The film could be a modest hit for Mills, as it is constantly compelling due to its unpredictability, and the laughs come often, including several wry ones (Bening intones to her young son, “Wondering if you are happy is a shortcut to being depressed“). The film also uses the trope of cutting to random things or digressions and setting up thoughts via alternative images and footage as done to great effect in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, but Mills here uses it to drum up interest in a somewhat small, limited scenario, as well as to set the stage and time period. The film can sometimes seem a bit pat with proverb-like life lessons and messages revealed, but some stirring exchanges still result out of the multitude of issues that Mills is tackling here. The film never loses its comedic bona fides though, and will offer discerning audiences a more thoughtful comedy than your usual multiplex fare.