Published Jan 13, 2017A fixture of the late '90s alternative scene, director and graphic designer Mike Mills lent his quirky artistry to music videos and record sleeves for the likes of Air, Moby, the Beastie Boys, Pulp and, hell, even Bran Van 3000. He's also made album covers, posters and books, and was featured in the iconic art book turned documentary Beautiful Losers. He's a true student of '90s freakiness, but Mills' more recent film work thrives on naturalism and restraint.
Like Beginners before it, 20th Century Women is a loosely autobiographical story set around Mills' life growing up in southern California in the late 1970s. Specifically, it centres on Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a confused teen who lives in a boarding house with his mom Dorothea (Annette Bening) and their roommates Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). The house's open-door policy means Jamie's current love interest and childhood friend Julie (Elle Fanning) is constantly hanging around too, only adding to his heartache.
When Dorothea grows concerned that Jamie isn't being given the right role models as he enters adulthood, she essentially asks Abbie and Julie to help raise him. Abbie's art-school history and feminist leanings have her teaching the teenaged boy about clitoral stimulation and women's rights, while the equally confused adolescent Julie uses half-remembered platitudes from her own therapist mother to guide Jamie along.
It's a fairly straightforward premise, but one that's executed to perfection. Every actor is stunning, bringing the film's familial dynamic to life with humour, grace and conviction. Yet, it's Mills who truly shines here. He's written a story in which every character is treated with the utmost empathy, and the whole thing is nostalgic and melancholy without ever quite feeling sad.
It's a cliché to say that a film is for everyone, but 20th Century Women really does cast a wide net. Where else have you seen a movie that spends equal time on the minutiae of the female orgasm, the unfairness of life for elderly women and the key differences between early Talking Heads and Black Flag? (Elevation Pictures)