Year: 2016
Director(s): Mike Mills
Writer(s): Mike Mills
Region of Origin: US

Rating: R
Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1
Color, 118 mins

Synopsis: The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s. (Source)

Few mysteries in this world are as comforting and confounding as a mother’s love. Stemming from director Mike Mills’ own childhood, the autobiographical 20th Century Women takes a look at this singular bond with warmth and wit. His latest is sure to disarm even the most hardened heart, and is a tribute to the friends we call family and the women who change our lives forever. Helping to convey Mills’ exploration of long-suffering affection, star Annette Bening turns in a career-best performance, vulnerable and raw, while Greta Gerwig and Lucas Jade Zumann round out a killer ensemble with unflinching honesty. No matter who you look at it, this film is pure joy, encapsulating the tumultuous era it’s set in, but remaining playful as it mines the hidden strength found in every woman.

The story is set in 1979 Santa Barbara, exploring a makeshift family centered around single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea loves Jamie with all she’s got, but as he gets older, she finds herself losing perspective. Increasingly unable to relate, Dorothea is forced to reexamine her very being. As Jamie searches for his own path, he finds out that nothing turns out the way we expect – he has a crush on Julie (Elle Fanning), who is his childhood friend, but she doesn’t view their relationship in the same way. Renting a room with Dorothea and Jamie is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething artist recovering from cancer and struggling to find focus within her aspirations. The wildcard amongst the group is William (Billy Crudup), who also lives in the house and is restoring it through a very lengthy process. As the lives of these disparate people converge, they find comfort and solidarity within each other, even when they least expect.

Mills’ latest simply has all the bases covered – the film is tons of fun, boasts plenty of heart, and never downplays the poignancy behind its deeper implications. Unlike most dramedies of this type, Mills never succumbs to cheap sentiment, but immerses us fully into his ragtag group of characters and their messy lives, celebrating the imperfections that make them who they are. There’s something to be said about the anchor of femininity that lines the film as well, with the women who shape Jamie’s life always being revealed as more complex than their societal perception. Even as the film zips by feeling light on its feet, nothing is ever trivial, with a dash of magical realism and narrative slight-of-hand helping to frame Mills’ microcosm of emotional awakening within larger context. The film’s naturalism also lends a spontaneity to the entire thing, and as each character searches for the meaning of happiness, both for each other and themselves, an intricate tapestry of punk rock, awkward relational pitfalls and deep bonds comes into focus.

In spite of Mills’ sensitive direction, it’s Annette Bening who’s the film’s crowning achievement. In a strong ensemble about a group of misfits each looking for their own way, Bening’s sincerity cuts through. She’s worn and beleaguered but never out for the count, continually warm even as she greats each challenge with a sly wink and tough resolve. The tenuous balance between her strength and insecurity is what gives the film its soul, and she’s impossible to look away from. Elsewhere, Greta Gerwig’s quirky Abby lends the film even more heart, turning her character’s tragedy into a moving portrait of someone who has so much to give. Elle Fanning’s Julie is great as well, adding a younger perspective to it all, and rendering adolescent confusion with raw realism. Billy Crudup’s William gives the group a lot of levity and charm, while Lucas Jade Zumann proves that he’s a force to be reckoned with, standing toe-and-toe with Bening for a succession of heartfelt encounters. The energy between the cast is downright is infectious, and by the end of it all, we’re left clamoring for more of these characters.

If there’s one thing that 20th Century Women leaves us with, it’s that society is nothing without the mothers that nurture and give birth to the world as we know it, and that our lives move too fast to ever look back. Mills captures everything from the transient nature of family and friendships, but also the indelible impact we’re capable of leaving in one another. Profound and deep, but still accessible and infinitely sweet, Mills latest is an irresistible cinematic treat that’s bound to only grow better with each viewing.

SG