The human spirit has been captured and bottled up into a two hour film, and that film is 20th Century Women. Only by watching can you set it free and bask in its beauty.
As someone who spends the majority of his waking hours watching movies, it's actually quite rare that I want to rewatch one. There are only a small handful of films that I've seen repeatedly and they rank among my favorites of all time. After I first saw 20th Century Women, I wanted to experience it again immediately. That feeling did not dull after my second viewing and I eagerly await my third.
Does that mean 20th Century Women is among my all-time favorites? It very well may. It envelops the spectrum of the human condition through a caring understanding of perfectly written people.
Director/writer Mike Mills has his parents to indirectly thank for his independent film prowess. His second movie, Beginners, told the true story of his father coming out as gay at 75 years old. 20th Century Women, his third feature, is largely about the evocative life of his mother- and the lives of the other women that helped raise him, seen through the lens of his teenage self.
It's 1979, and they all live in one house in Santa Barbara. There's the family: Dorothea the witty mother (Annette Bening) and her rebellious son Jamie (Lucas Zumann), the two renters: William the hippie mechanic (Billy Crudup) and Abbie the feminist artist (Greta Gerwig), and the frequent visitor: Jamie's longtime friend Julie (Elle Fanning). This eclectic cast of characters sets a stage rife with possibility.
Mike Mills, as a writer, grasps one key to great filmmaking with more expertise than the vast majority of working filmmakers: to make resonant statements about the profundities of the human experience, one must write people that believably interact within such spaces. Mills brings the characters of 20th Century Women to life so exquisitely that the film touches upon femininity, love, aging, motherhood, and sexuality simply by being with them.
And being with them is an inexplicable pleasure in itself. By the time the credits were rolling, I already missed these characters like old friends. They're well rounded and intricately developed to a point of vivacious realness; their yearnings and growing pains are just as authentic as your own.
To achieve this effect, Mills embraces the truth that human beings can't be easily explained. He develops them through incisive looks into the external factors that shape us. The families and friends and lovers of 20th Century Women are fascinating results of gender expectations, possessions, generational world events, books, movies, music. We see them built from interactions with countless relatable influences, giving us endless reasons to care deeply about each of them and the relationships between them.
Therein lies the film's brilliant feminism, in depicting the titular women as multifaceted people with autonomy and ownership of their various desires. Its egalitarian heart beats with women who are women, not submissive objects or rewards or perfect specimens.
Mills directs 20th Century Women like life flashing before one's eyes at the moment of death. His background is in music videos and that sensibility carries through. He and cinematographer Sean Porter paint a wondrous visual landscape: primary colors are loud, movement is fluidly framed and sometimes sped up or blurred, single shots tell entire stories. It's grand, yet subtle; seemingly sporadic, but intentional. The direction reminds us that complicated lives are worth standing in awe of.
Especially awe-inspiring? The performances. The always incredible Annette Bening is a humble revelation as the mother Mills dedicated the movie to, newcomer Lucas Zumann deserves a career, my favorite actress Greta Gerwig earns sympathy and exudes empathy, Billy Crudup is his understated self, and Elle Fanning continues to dominate the cinematic picture of youth.
20th Century Women gets so much right: it's wickedly funny, an accurate period piece, and honors the body with frank discussions of sexuality. It is a waltz of emotion that makes you want to smile and cry and laugh and dance. And feel, and be. There's not much more I can say other than bestowing my highest praise upon it.