20th Century Women: Mike Mills’ Personal Film, Starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning

Mike Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women, is a richly multilayered, serio-comic celebration of the complexities of a modern family life.

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Defying conventional genres, this original film keeps redefining itself, shifting with its characters as they experience the pivotal summer of 1979.

Set in Santa Barbara, the narrative follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a determined single mother, about 55, raising her adolescent son, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) at a time brimming with cultural change and social rebellion.

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To accomplish her ambitious goal, making Jamie a “real man” ready for the “real world,” Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields’ home, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a savvy, provocative teenage neighbor.

Mills recreates the warmth and passion, but also the urgency of three generations in the throes of momentous transition.

The ever-likable Bening gives one of her very best performances as Dorothea, conveying with subtle and tremendous emotional power her unconditional love for her son, as well as her bewilderment about the quickly changing world he is about to enter.

Gerwig, Fanning and Billy Crudup all create complex, unique characters who contribute in crucial ways to Jamie’s upbringing.

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Living yo ti its title, 20th Century Women is a poignant love letter to the individuals–all women–who raise us and form us in the context of a makeshift family, which forges fragile connections that will mystify, haunt and inspire them through their lives.

Moment of Pivotal Transition

It is President Jimmy Carter’s last year in the White House. Iran’s Islamic Revolution has begun, as has the hostage crisis at the American Embassy.  For the first time, Americans feel a loss of control over oil, as dependence on the Middle East turns into long gas lines and a much talked-about “energy crisis. The country is in a major recession.20th_century_women_4_bening

Carter delivers his famous “Crisis in Confidence” speech; Brenda Ann Spencer is the first modern teen school shooter; Three Mile Island has America’s first major nuclear accident; therapy makes its way to the suburbs; Apple Computer goes public; Margaret Thatcher is elected Prime Minister; and the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s is in decline.

In its background, the film captures an historical time, when all the issues, concerns, technologies and cultural forces that we experience as “contemporary” start to concretize.

As director Mills says:  “The late 70s are kind of the beginning of ‘now’ …and yet the late 70s are a completely different world from what will come just around the corner – with all the changes that follow Reagan, the 80s desire for wealth, the tragedies of AIDS, and the impacts of the internet, 9-11, as well as unchecked economic disparity.  That’s why 20TH CENTURY WOMEN can feel like an elegy for a time and an innocence we can never return to.”

As noted, the focus is on a Santa Barbara single mom and Bohemian room-renter Dorothea, who is facing her own shifting 20th Century reality, through a series of personal upheavals.   She entreats her household’s women to help her son Jamie navigate the world, only to see him introduced to the rebellious ecstasy of punk rock, the perilous lures of art and romance, and the fragility of everything.20th_century_women_8_fanning

This is the territory of Mills’ intimate yet comedic drama, set at the juncture between social history’s dizzying transitions and everyday life.   His story is at once a textured tale of love, regret and momentary connection in one family; an ode to the strength of women through the generations; and a culturally study of how the lives we lead in the moment become the eras we looks back on in wonder from the future.

The film’s tightly-knit ensemble form a non-traditional family circle, to say the least. It is led by Bening in her most emotionally exposed role to date as a guarded woman nevertheless driven to lend those who need it a safe haven.

As Dorothea, Bening is at once a mother navigating blinding change in her own inimitable way, and a potent reminder of how the children of the Depression became the parents of the 70s, whose children created the utterly altered society we live in now.

Says Mills:  “I wanted to tell a story about the personal moments of grace within all that disruption and to look at how intimate mysteries twine with huge social forces.”20th_century_women_3_bening

The film is equally a love letter to Mills’ mother and to the women who raised him.

Mills says: “In a sense, this is the story of the Greatest Generation meeting Generation X, my mom being born in the 1920s and me from the late 1960s. On one level, the film is a love story between a mother and son, a love story that is very deep and unique, yet may never bring them the solidity for which they both yearn.  The film tries to capture those transient moments where you feel true connection with a loved one, these little moments of grace, of understanding and connection, which are more fragile and transitory than we’re taught  – but when they happen, even fleetingly, they are truly a lot.”

Mill’s previous film, BEGINNERS (for which Christopher Plummer won an Oscar and Golden Globe), took its inspiration from Mills’ father and his revelation that, at the age of 75, he was coming out of the closet. 20th Century Women is inspired by Mills’ far closer relationship with his mother.

But aside from some similarities–both are based on autobiographical foundations, and layered with humor, cultural artifacts and a fascination with near-connections and fleeting time– they are quite different.

As the title suggests, the movie is very much about the female experience of America as the last century sped towards the finish line in a crisis mode.

Relating personal stories in shared historical narratives has been a runing theme throughout Mills’ features.  His goal of going beyond general labels of his own age group–simply known as Generation X–is very much fulfilled here.