20th Century Women

20th century women 2016 Annete Benning

20th Century Women [2016]: In 20th Century Women, an aging single mother recruits two younger women to guide her teenage son.

“Can’t things just be pretty?”… We open on a breathtaking aerial shot of the ocean, the sort of picturesque vision one might doubt isn’t computer-generated. Moments later, we cut to a car engulfed in flames, another beautiful image now of something undeniably ugly. All one-hundred-and-eighteen minutes of the movie play like this. Vibrant colors and handsome composition paint a profoundly sad world. Beauty is everywhere in 20th Century Women, but it’s never again as perfect or as easy to spot as that first image of the Pacific. Like the loud, jumbled punk music its characters listen to, the film is the result of “passion bigger than the tools you have for dealing with it.” The characters, too, are beautifully unrefined, and the actors portraying them deliver staggering performances. Annette Bening is wonderful though she’s been better; Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig likely have not been. Even relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann holds his own.

Emotional Time… Mike Mills’ third narrative feature clearly values feeling over plot. The burgeoning punk scene of the seventies plays an important role in whatever conventional story 20th Century Women demonstrates, but the writer-director’s love for music is evident even in his narrative structure. This is not a linear story. It’s a song. We move forwards and backwards in time. Voiceovers narrate from the future. Archival footage, still images, and text litter the visual world. We dip in and out of characters, sometimes revisiting scenes from different perspectives. Shots repeat like verses: new pairs sit at the same kitchen table, the same woman again sits smoking on her bed. Movements coincide with beats. We cut to shots mid-motion: a cat mid-jump, a couple mid-kiss, a window mid-slide. The sequences play like a divine music video, and the individual moments are all so captivating, so funny, so moving, that in the end, we don’t mind that they might not add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Such is life, no?

At a post-screening Q&A, Mike Mills reminded the audience that “simple everyday life is holy,” and 20th Century Women, a film short on plot but bursting with feeling, wit, and unforgettable performances, is a hugely affecting testament.