Greta Gerwig is an indie Queen. I admit this is only the third movie I've seen with her. When I wrote about Damsels in Distress, I didn't mention her name once, which in retrospect seems odd. She was much harder to avoid in Frances Ha, where she not only starred but co-wrote the film. I bring this up because she seems perfectly cast in 20th Century Women, placed in the middle between Annette Bening and Elle Fanning. Truthfully, in saying that I'm admitting that all three women are perfectly cast. What helps make the film successful is that such care is taken to make everything seem "real". The characters interact, the actors fit their parts, the writing is great (Mills got an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay). Mills admits it's autobiographical, which explains the feeling of accuracy ... no one should know these characters better than Mills.
Mills pulls off an interesting trick, hinted at in the title. It may be autobiographical, and Lucas Jade Zumann adds his name to the list of fine performances as Jamie. In some ways, Jamie is at the center of the film. But Mills isn't quite writing about himself, he's writing about his mother. It's not called "My Teenage Years", it's called 20th Century Women. Jamie grows as a character to the extent that his understanding of women grows.
Annette Bening's mom is a combination of middle-aged cool and middle-aged unconnected to the current lives of the young. It takes place in 1979 in Los Angeles, and there is a scene where she and Billy Crudup try to understand the kids music. Conclusion: Black Flag no, Talking Heads yes. (That scene includes on of my pet peeves, when vinyl is used ... Crudup put the needle on the first track of a side of More Songs About Buildings and Food, but the song we hear, "The Big Country", is the last song on the side.) Better is a scene where the kids explain the music to the mom:
Mom: What is that?
Abbie: It's The Raincoats.
Mom: Can't things just be pretty?
Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.
Mom: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?
Abbie: Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?
(For what it's worth, Mills says he drew upon an essay by Greil Marcus to inform this scene.)
The biggest problem with the movie has nothing to do with what's on screen. I just struggle with moms in movies. Bening's mom is great, not perfect but who is, eccentric in good ways (which could be said for all of the characters). But she gave me a slight case of the heebie-jeebies ... I imagined my own mom in the same situation, which made me uncomfortable.
I can't go without mentioning Elle Fanning. She first appeared on these pages in 2001, when I said, in a discussion of Super 8, "(Oh, and Elle Fanning is really, really good.)" I'd like to say I was on this before anyone else, but in fact Fanning has gotten good reviews for many years. Her role in 20th Century Women could have been overwhelmed by the Oscar-nominated Bening and the indie Queen Gerwig, especially since when Gerwig is on the screen, it's hard to pay attention to anything else. But Fanning holds up her end.
I liked this a bit more than the other Mike Mills movie I've seen, Beginners. Call it a vote for the cast. #886 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.