Directed by: Mike Mills
Distributed by: A24
Written by Jeff Sparks
“20th Century Women” is a film about the small moments in life that will go down as fragments in our memories. Writer and director Mike Mills captures many of these types of memories that range from teenage discoveries like young love or a first time smoking, all the way up to struggles like single parenting or illness at a young age. Each character he conjures feels real. Each seems to be a lost soul, searching for a sense of self at different times in their lives while refusing to give in to the idea that they’re lost in the first place. Annette Bening plays Dorothea Fields, a single parent who was raised in the depression and struggles to understand the modern world as she searches for a direction to raise her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979, Santa Barbara. Greta Gerwig plays Abbie, a young adult dealing with a potentially life-changing medical diagnosis as she tries to find answers on what to do with her life after college. Elle Fanning plays the final “20th century woman”, a teenage friend of Jamie named Julie who is eager to grow up before she is ready and hurts the feelings of those around her in the process. Even without being a woman, the always valuable Billy Crudup rounds out the cast with a crucial role as William, a middle-aged man who doesn’t know what he wants out of his life as he crosses paths with this group of characters.
Each of these actors makes the film feel authentic, in conjunction with the set design, and the way Mills presents the world we feel firmly cemented in 1979. What sets the film apart is the way Mills uses imagery and narration. Throughout we hear characters’ thoughts along with imagery of what they’re talking about whether it be from the past, present, or future. These scenes of imagery from different time periods remind us that these moments and interactions between these characters we watch are just fragments in time that may or may not be remembered due to the reality that as time passes these connections will fade and become a relic of the past. Just like their connections their memories also slip away, just as the final two lines of narration by Jamie indicate in what he says about his mother- “Years after she is gone I will finally get married and have a son. I will try to explain to him what his grandmother was like, but it will be impossible.”
With his beautiful direction and magical score, Mills’ decision to base some of these characters on real people from his life make this film feel so emotional and genuine that I found myself struggling to pull myself out of it hours after it ended as it made me think about my own life and how it relates to the themes displayed throughout the film and how they are true to the struggles of every human being as the passage of time destroys all things living, cultural or spiritual. Mills’ grace in presenting this enigma of life is what makes “20th Century Women” one of the most distinctive films of the 21st century.
“20th Century Women” Trailer