In no particular order, here are all the things that Mike Mills’ third directorial feature, 20th Century Women, will make you do: nonchalantly dab your eyes with a tissue, develop a deep affinity for life in Santa Barbara in 1979, and fall in love with every inch of Annette Bening’s glorious face. Yes, Mills’ follow-up to 2011’s Beginners is that good.
Led by a brilliant cast of Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, 20th Century Women tells the story of 50-something-year-old Dorothea (Bening) trying to decipher how to best help her teenage son (Zumann) grow into a good, just, young man in a time when everything is somewhat in flux: there’s an energy crisis, Jimmy Carter is desperately trying to unite a society that’s fumbling in the space between one era and the next, and local teenagers entertain themselves by playing choking games. Terrified that she alone cannot give her son everything he needs–and feeling more distant from him with every new record he spins in his room, and every minute in which he becomes a slightly older version of himself–Dorothea enlists the help of a few lost souls that rent rooms in her enormous, constantly in-repair home in sunny Santa Barbara.
It becomes evident early on that rather than being driven by a robust plot, 20th Century Women rests on the shoulders of its delectable characters, from artistically-driven, crimson-haired Abbie (Gerwig), to ethereal, fiercely opinionated Julie (Fanning). As a director, Mike Mills is the best kind of anthropologist, the kind who vividly unpacks a human being in the simplest, but poignant of ways. All five main characters get their moment in the spotlight: we’re given a voiceover and a collage-like scattering of events that tell us “Hey, here is my history. Here is what led me to where I am.” Mills’ documentarian, storytelling style works just as flawlessly here as it did in Beginners–fictional scenes are peppered with photography, with cinema, with music, with vivid real-life moments that go hand in hand with our emotional histories. If it weren’t so simple, it’d be genius.
It helps, of course, that the characters that 20th Century Women devotes time to are all multi-dimensionally conceived and richly drawn, and beautifully, beautifully acted. From the very start of the film, you want to be snapped on a Polaroid by Abbie, share tales of sexual escapades with Julie, sand wood and indulge in meditative conversation with Willie the hippie (Crudup), thrash around at a punk show with Jamie (Zumann), and have a cup of coffee and a cigarette with Dorothea. These are people whose journeys you tumble into, journeys you’d love to remain on, spinning right along side them through a trajectory full of coastal drives and literature and regret and nostalgia and epic changes, all in one.
Bening, who has been nominated a handful of times over the course of her career but has yet to win, is already being considered a frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Actress. To put it bluntly: having stepped to of the theatre experiencing the poignant, vivid work Bening graces the screen with, is to step out of the theatre with a very clear understanding of why naturalistic films like 20th Century Women should be a constant presence in theatres, amongst the muck, and understanding of why to even go to the movies in era of binge worthy television. You hear that, Mike Mills? Keep em’ coming.
20th Century Women debuted at the New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters on Dec. 25, 2016.