Writer/director Mike Mills began his theatrical career back in 2005 with the release of “Thumbsucker,” a dramedy that was received decently by critics, but was mostly noted for a strong cast that included Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Benjamin Bratt. He followed this up with “Beginners” in 2011, another film that received fair reviews, except this time the focus rested squarely on Christopher Plummer’s performance. In fact, it was this performance that won Plummer an Oscar, making him the oldest winner of a competitive Oscar at 82. Now, after another break of several years, Mills returns with his latest project, “20th Century Women,” a film that borrows elements from his previous work, but still manages to be its own odd little outing.
The film follows the five occupants of a house in California in 1979. There’s Dorothea (Annette Bening), an older woman and single mother who is concerned about raising her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie is trying to find his own way through life, spending a lot of time with his girlfriend Julie (Elle Fanning) and tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer who has recently battled cancer. Finally, there’s William (Billy Crudup), a man who has a thing for Abbie and pretty much spends his time doing little jobs around the house that need doing. The film is something of a tapestry of their lives that’s primarily concerned with Dorothea trying to do what’s best for her son, while navigating through the changing times with her oddball group of boarders (who are practically like family).
Perhaps that synopsis doesn’t do the best job of explaining the film, but then again, it’s a rather hard film to give an account of due to every character having their own little plotlines and experiences throughout these two hours. However, suffice it to say that this is a film that is very character driven. I’ve mentioned that they’re “oddballs,” but this is one of the elements that make these characters rather fascinating to spend time with. Everyone seems lost in their own lives, while being concerned about others in their group as well. Dorothea in particular cares about everyone under her roof, but she’s just as adrift as any of them.
The relationship between Dorothea and Jamie ends up being something of a cornerstone of the film. She wants her closest friends to help her point him in the right direction, but of course, like any teenager, Jamie is going to do his own thing his own way. It certainly doesn’t help that his mother is from a different time where the rules were different, which is perhaps why he forms an attachment with Abbie, who is young, free-spirited, and is current on what the youth are up to in their times. Meanwhile, Dorothea and William are stuck at trying to figure out what music is considered cool and what’s not.
This is a film primarily about such relationships, between a mother and a son, friends, those that want to be more, and those that want to leave things as they are. In regards to the extreme latter, it’s a little difficult to pin down the character of Julie (Jamie’s “girlfriend”). She spends all of her free time with Jamie, and while he seems to want to take it further, she wants to stay friends. Being the one who spends the most time with him, she becomes the first one that Dorothea asks to help guide him as he grows up (this is despite her only being about two years older than he is), a role that she is very reluctant to take, with the young man being very reluctant to take guidance from anyone.
As far as their relationship goes, it feels like there was a lot more that could’ve been developed there, but with there being so much else going on, it falls victim to the film’s slight over-crowdedness. In fact, this is felt more than once, primarily in the character of William and his relationship with Abbie. These are all intriguing characters, but by trying to concentrate on so many individuals AND their relationships to the other characters, some corners had to be cut, resulting in a film that has you engaged a good portion of the time, but also has you trying to wade through several parts that meander as it tries to include these half-explored connections.
Would the film have worked better had it delved deeper into the unexplored areas? With it already running a somewhat-stretched two hours, chances are that an extension could’ve done more harm than good. Perhaps if Mills had opted to bring a little more focus to the film by removing superfluous characters (William maybe?) and concentrating on its central relationships, then it might have flowed a little better than it does (as opposed to the mix of well-developed ideas and half-baked relationships it becomes).
That being said, there is a lot to like here. I think it can easily be said that this is one of the best ensembles of 2016 (shame on SAG for not taking notice). Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup all give wonderful performances, filling their characters with unique personalities and making them a delight to watch. It really makes one wish that the screenplay (nominated for an Oscar, despite its shortcomings) had been able to juggle all of them just a little more skillfully. In the end, I find myself a little on the fence, so while I can’t fully recommend Mills’ latest effort, it’s one I wouldn’t really try to persuade you not to see. In an instance like this, sometimes all you need is a fantastic cast and a script that at least gets it mostly right to provide a decent entertainment.
“20th Century Women” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.00:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The image is perfectly clear and sharp throughout the entire presentation, doing a great job of showing off the film’s late-70s production design. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue and the great soundtrack in excellent quality. Overall, the film looks and sounds fantastic, ensuring a more than satisfying experience.
Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Mike Mills: A very informative commentary track in which Mills gives you several interesting tidbits while taking you through the making of the film.
Making 20th Century Women (10 Minutes): A great featurette that takes you behind the scenes of the making of the film through interviews with the cast and crew.
20th Century Cast (11 Minutes): Just as the title implies, this is a featurette that focuses on the film’s outstanding ensemble.
Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” features a magnificent ensemble and several intriguing characters, but thanks to a slight case of overcrowding, many of them and their connections to each other are left largely unexplored, resulting in a film that can’t help but meander a bit too much throughout its two-hour runtime. Mills clearly wanted to encompass quite a bit in this little film. However, even with its lengthy runtime, he just wasn’t able to develop the world of these characters quite enough.