Period piece coming of age stories are hardly a rare beast in cinema, allowing writers and directors to tell autobiographical stories while exploring wider historical themes, often rich ground for believable, enlightening works. This fact makes 20th Century Women’s reticence in admitting that is in fact a coming of age story confusing, doubly so when one considers that it’s a very fine example of the genre. Ostensibly about three women of varying ages going through the social upheavals of the ‘70s (at least that’s what all the trailers and synopses say), Mike Mills’ film ends up being more about how these three lives are brought together by the transition of one of their sons from boy to man.
Annette Bening plays Dorothea, the mother of the teenage boy (Jamie, played by Lucas Zumann), and a woman who has experienced unbelievable change in her lifetime, growing up through the Great Depression and World War 2, before finding herself slightly lost in California in 1979. She’s got most of her life together, but feels Jamie pulling away, so enlists the help of her cool, younger lodger Abi (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to guide him into functional manhood. It’s a task made more difficult by their various neuroses and poor choices, and Jamie doesn’t take particularly well to having two extra mums, but it’s a lot of fun seeing this makeshift family make progress together.
Mills’ script is funny and light on its feet, giving time and space for a variety of views on the world from each of its characters. Dorothea is just about losing her connection to the ‘kids these days’, but without resorting to clichéd bafflement, while Abi seeks to bring feminism into Jamie’s life. Julie, meanwhile, is as self-destructive and confused as any bored teen, but she can feel social progress being made around her, and Fanning does a great job with this sense of hope that one day, society will allow her to truly express herself.
Where his writing brings laughs and convincing pathos, Mills’ directorial techniques leave a little to be desired. Though there is a wonderfully shot scene on a beach, illuminated solely by camera flashes, other visually showy scenes are really overstylised, speeding things up and adding a rainbow filter to proceedings. It takes you out of the experience, particularly as these choices feel far more ‘80s inspired than the ’79 setting should allow. Luckily, these scenes are a rarity, and when 20th Century Women stays simple, it works superbly well.
Bening is, of course, magnificent in the lead role, slightly crumpled by life, but vibrant and energetic. She gets the lion’s share of the laughs, along with Billy Crudup as the second lodger in her house, and Bening imbues Dorothea with just a hint of conservatism, loathe as the character would be to admit it. If anyone could play a conflicted yet cool ‘70s single mum better than Bening, it would be a huge surprise, and she should join Emma Stone and Natalie Portman as obvious frontrunners for this year’s Best Actress awards.
In support, Gerwig’s performance won’t exactly surprise anyone already familiar with her work, but she layers in some additional sadness and self-awareness here that many of her previous characters have slightly lacked. Stuck in an artistic rut, she takes to her task of mothering Jamie with enthusiasm and provides an effective bridge between the real parenting of Dorothea and the awkwardly therapeutic angle taken by Julie. Both Gerwig and Fanning are having excellent 2016s, and, like the rest of the cast, bring an easy chemistry to the film that makes it consistently enjoyable.
Zumann is excellent as the on-screen representation of Mills, balancing the typical resentment and boredom of teenage masculinity with something sweeter. With Zumann bearing a really striking resemblance to Bening both physically and in spirit, Dorothea and Jamie make for one of the most believable mother/son pairings in recent memory. Crudup is the only one of the main actors excluded from the main story beats, but he crafts a memorable character who is one part emotionally intelligent, one part dimbulb, with a genuine kindness that brings these disparate characteristics together.
20th Century Women is Mills’ third film, and undoubtedly his most confident and accomplished work yet. Marshalling a great cast to uniformly fantastic performances thanks to an insightful script with solid jokes, Mills ensures that you’ll leave the film with a warm glow, even if the unnecessary epilogue drags the energy down right at the end. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and the plot makes its way through very few surprises, but when it’s pulled off this entertainingly and anchored by a top form Annette Bening, a coming-of-age tale doesn’t really have to break the rules to be a great time.