“20th Century Women”
Directed by Mike Mills
Adolescent coming-of-age films are a dime a dozen…and usually revolve around sex…or having sex…or talking about sex…as if that’s the determining factor of when one comes of age. FAR fewer are the more introspective takes on the subject – how culture and our proximity to differing views help guide us. Some of the best of these include “Squid and the Whale”, “The Way Way Back”, “This Is England”, “Crooklyn” or “Fish Tank”. But even these films tells their stories from the perspective of the adolescent. What makes the delightful “20th Century Women” so unique, and enjoyable, is that it tells its story from the perspective of the caretakers surrounding the curious and confused adolescent.
Full disclosure…this is a film about a 16-year-old kid from the suburbs, born in 1964. I happen to be a kid from the suburbs, born in 1964. So you might think, “well, of course he liked it…it’s about him!” Maybe so, but, on the other hand, it also means I’ll smell bullshit from a MILE away. And from that expert viewpoint, Mike Mills’ story, not coincidentally based on his own life and upbringing, almost never veers in to the wrong lane. It is earnest, jerks some tears, and is often hilarious.
Mills has placed in his film, a fail-safe plot device. You see, instead of just being in love, or just being taught by an older, ultra-hip pal, or just being watched over by an ultra-hip single mom, or even just having to deal with a well-meaning, but misguided father figure…our protagonist has all four…each giving him different perspectives on the world and the process. As a result, our emotional response grows – becoming more focused as these disparate lessons occasionally coalesce or more often contradict. It’s a brilliant game…made even better by Mills fearless and very loose narrative technique, which will go undetailed here. You’ll want to experience the uniqueness of it for yourself.
Of course, none of the above would work if not for the expert cast. The boy himself, Lucas Jade Zumann (is every young actor named Lucas?!) is good…if not exceptional. But he’s just the vessel, so we are really at the mercy of those that fill it – and they are all phenomenal. Elle Fanning, our boy’s love interest, is better than I’ve ever seen her. Billy Crudup, as the loving, but clueless, aging hippie is hilarious, even as he plays every laugh as if it were the quietest line ever delivered. Greta Gerwig simply kicks ass as the kickass punk-rock role model. And this very well might be Annette Benning’s best performance…at least in my eyes. It is not an easy task to play a cool mom who is still every bit as protective as a mom can be…and she accomplishes this with grace, hilarity, and strength.
And then there’s the music. Aside from Roger Neill’s beautiful, ambient, Eno-esque score, the song choices are spot on and chronologically accurate. Songs from the earliest albums of The Clash, The Talking Heads, The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Devo, Suicide and Black Flag, (as well as a Bowie hit from 1979’s “Lodger”) put me right back in to a particular time, place and head space. (I do have one major complaint, however. If you show a needle being placed at the first song on the side of a record, the song we hear better be the first song on that side…not the last. Those of us who know that record KNOW that record. Remember, this was a time before iTunes, when people listened to album sides from beginning to end.)
This teeny tiny complaint aside, “20th Century Women” is a lovely film and should be seen. When added to the long list of coming-of-age films that have preceded it, “Women” will deservedly rank quite high.
Written on 1/23/2017