by Nathaniel R
Mike Mill's terrific new film 20th Century Women, inspired by his own mother with Annette Bening further fictionalizing her, doesn't open until Christmas (disappointing as RIGHT NOW or August might've been the perfect time for it). But since it played the NYFF and we said so little, it's time to attempt to share the joy it offers. In lieu of a standard review...
Ten Amazing Things About 20th Century Women
first impressions of a film that will surely make our 2016 top ten list
10 The Sunlight
As someone allergic to summers and the Californian promise of sunshine year round, rarely has a film that's so saturated with California gold felt so inviting. The warmth can't only be credited to the actors and direction but also the cinematographer Sean Porter. He's a fairly new DP, best known for Green Room and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter neither of which could look any more different than this gorgeous dramedy so he's one to watch.
09 Teen Girls Therapy Group
One of the best recurring beats, though very economically deployed, is a therapy group run by Julie's (Elle Fanning) mother. It's never less than satisfying when it shows up for comic punctuation.
08 "Our Bodies, Ourselves"
At one point in the film the protagonist Jamie (wonderful find Lucas Jade Zumann, whose only previous film credit is Sinister 2) reads two books on female sexuality. Two short conversations follow, one sharply comic with a fellow teenage boy and the other defensive and heartbreaking with his mother, show the great range and versatility of the film's emotional registers as well as Mills' great screenplay.
07 Julie's Sexuality
Elle Fanning appeared earlier this year in The Neon Demon and something about her presence and performance incongruously refused to be sexualized despite content that wanted her to be. Here's a 180 as Fanning brilliantly details Julie's contradictory feelings about her own promiscuity. She and Zumann deliver one of the most honest depictions of hormonally charged but essentially platonic adolescent friendship we've ever seen onscreen.
06 Billy Crudup as William
He won't get any credit for this performance (acclaim for male actors generally avoids roles that are so intertwined with the feminine in interesting ways) but it's his best work since the undervalued Jesus's Son
05 The Jimmy Carter Speech
The trailer uses this this speech as a kind of framing device. It doesn't serve the same function in the movie but it's still perfectly realized and evocative of the time, place and political leanings of Dorothea's world.
04 Greta Gerwig as "Abbie"
It's not really a spoiler to tell you that Abbie has cancer in the movie as her storyline begins there. A weaker movie would focus solely on that rich dramatic territory but the characters in 20th Century Women are so roundly drawn that it's only a small part of who we eventually know her to be. This is the best supporting role Gerwig has ever had and she nails the diffuse arc and the idiosyncracies - a worthy Oscar contender.
03 The Music: Black Flag vs The Talking Heads
Mike Mills and his music team really steep the film in late 70s culture clashes and the most amusing is a sidebar on "art fags" versus "punks." My personal favorite scene is between Dorothea (Annette Bening) and William (Billy Crudup) as they dance together to music they don't "get" while trying to understand it's appeal to the kids.
02 The Narration
One of the most unusual tactics in the film is multi-character narration as the film's principal characters share feelings about their current and future selves or provide biography for each other. This omniscient voiceover reveals the film's scalpel-sharp understanding of generation gaps but it also adds a spiritual layer that can't be easily shaken when the film ends.
01 The Bening as "Dorothea"
Writing about this movie, as I've just found, is nearly as blissful as watching it but the pleasure isn't wholly in relating to or understanding it. As first impressions go 20th Century Women gives off the vibe of a fascinating stranger that you'd like to be friends with. Their complexities are readily apparent but that doesn't mean you "get" them. Annette Bening's rich, layered, enormously funny but dramatically inscrutable performance is a huge part of why this is. Every time you think you have a bead on Dorothea's bohemian ideals, politics, sexuality, and even parenting, she'll surprise you. It might just be her single greatest performance in a career full of grand ones.