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20th Century Women isn't about giving us some epic look at a group of friends or a family, but it is about the passage of time with people who are warm and caring and in a genuine way. Mike Mills isn't a saccharine filmmaker, but he also doesn't shy away from sentiment - I always have to point out this is separate from sentimentality - and the feeling that I came away with from the comedy 20th Century Women is this warmth from all of the characters, and this feeling that I know these people, whether I did or didn't (and I actually did in the sense that, at times, the mother and son were me and my mom for a short period of my teenage years, so there's an authenticity just there to me).
There's so much empathy for everyone here that it adds to the authenticity of the emotions, even for Greta Gerwig's Abbie who is, in essence, another 'Greta Gerwig' character like I've seen, or think I've seen, in other movies (her quirky wisdom seems akin to last year's Mistress America at least). While she is my least favorite person in this movie, she's given a history and many moments, surrounding one of those terrible things that happens to people and there's not much to be done about it, or could've, it's out of the hands of anything *to* be done. There's so much work done on the characters here by Mills, getting us to like them despite all of their flaws or those moments where they don't act with logic or sense, that it doesn't matter that there isn't too much of a story. This is the story of these characters in a short span of time while also, as if looking on from some other, ethereal plane, about what this time meant in the context of what came before 1979, and what was to come.
Among the actors here, Lucas Jade Zumann is the breakout star as the 15 year old Jamie, but I was so taken with Benning and Fanning as the 50-ish, "she was in the depression" as she's described mother and the 2 years older than Jamie but that matters so much pleutonic friend respectively. I wonder if the film would've worked with any other actors in the roles, but really I can't imagine anyone else. Every time Bening's on screen she gives Dorothea this feeling of 'well... I guess this is happening now, what do I do about it, I'm not sure', and while she can get angry or concerned she's never one to go too over the top - this is the anti-Fences in that regard of being about a kid scarred by a parent - she does care about what happens to her son, with the "inciting incident" in screen writing terms being him almost dying from doing one of those dumb-s*** things teenagers do on a dare. It's a unique and subtle performance, filled with a sense of... questioning, uncertainty, which is harder to pull off than it looks.
Fanning, meanwhile, is also having to underplay, which is good to see. This is an impressive year for her between this, Live by Night (which she was the best part of) and the Neon Demon, and she's different in all of them. I want to say I like the work she does here the most even as (or because) it's the least likable one among the bunch (and keep in mind she's a born-again Christian in the South in LbN). Mills's writing provides Fanning a great deal to make Julie come alive, but I found her not saying things, the way she shows Jamie how to hold a cigarette, when she is saying little, and then when she is backed into doing something that she should want to do but doesn't go for - going past being 'just friends' with Jamie in the last third - how she responds is devastating. It's like, 'no, don't act this way', as opposed to simply looking at her as a "B"-word, which is how a hackier writer could've gone with it.
Oh, and I must reiterate this is a comedy, and it's funny as hell. There's certainly some dramatic stretches, but Mills mines a lot of humor out of generational splits - Bening's face as she hears early Black Flag, and then trying to "move" to it with Billy Crudup, is one of the funniest things this year - and it's a tricky balance that Mills finds between making the feminism (yes, actual literature and quotes spoken in voice-over from essays) serious AND humorous. We don't doubt that the feminism of the characters is pure, but there's also that question that's posed: how much is really appropriate, or can be legitimately understood, by 15 year old who barely knows who he is in this world?
And on top of this Mills is having fun and some daring as a filmmaker, using psychedelic colors to show cars driving at times, and going not for the slow-motion but fast-motion speed, but not for comedy - the aesthetic point matches up with what the movie's about: life moves too fast, and we have to try and keep up with it best as we can and grow with things and become better people as everything moves too quickly. If it's ultimately too episodic to be anything really great or up to be there with the very best this year, I'd still tell anyone who likes smart character independent(ish) movies centered on teenagers and adults to see it immediately; it has a good place alongside The Squid and the Whale and, to a less taboo extent, Diary of a Teenage Girl.
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