Annette Bening And Greta Gerwig Gleam In Vital "20th Century Women"

“You need to get out of this town before you start working at a sunglasses shop.”

So few are the flaws in writer-director Mike Mills’ autobiographical comedy-drama “20th Century Women” that, for a while, they’re all too conspicuous. An overbearing musical theme. A smattering of visual touches that calls to mind stock iMovie plugins. Some dialogue that breaches “Little Miss Sunshine” levels of affected quirkiness. Happily, thirty minutes in, the beauty and wisdom of Mills’ film surges, washing away the aforementioned imperfections. What we’re left with is a poignant, often hilarious tapestry of family and femininity and masculinity and mortality anchored by two of the most undervalued actresses in the world: Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig.

It’s 1979. Bening (“The Kids Are All Right”) stars as Dorothea Fields, a single mom to a 15-year-old boy named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Their shitbox car has just gone up in flames, leaving the pair to spend a surplus of time at their spacious Santa Barbara abode. Dorothea is by turns impossibly hip and stubbornly ritualistic, her actions frequently, funnily explained away by others as a byproduct of her depression-era upbringing. For example, her gratitude to the firefighters who put out the car fire comes with a dinner invitation. Jamie informs his mother that this is not normal. We immediately get the impression that Dorothea has no use for normal.

Gerwig (“Mistress America”) co-stars as Abbie, twenty-something room renter, punk fan, cervical cancer fighter, and de facto Fields family member. She resides just down the hall from Jamie and Dorothea, filling the house with a steady mix of all the coolest rock and pop records of the day. If Dorothea is the film’s heart, Abbie is its lungs, steadily breathing hope and curiosity and sadness into the people around her. She serves crucially as one of two bridges between Jamie and his mom, with Gerwig, as always, giving brilliant life to an unusually well drawn character.

The other gateway between mother and son is Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning). Julie is a 17-year-old with family problems who repays Jamie’s teenage lust with decidedly platonic sleepovers. Julie’s relationship with her pseudo-estranged therapist mother is almost purely professional – an exceptionally melancholic writing invention – filling the girl with the pathos of a woman twice her age. It’s when Dorothea, struggling to reach adolescent Jamie in the same way she reached young Jamie, asks old souls Abbie and Julie to help raise her son that the depth of “20th Century Women” fully comes into full view.

Dorothea’s request comes about with the realization that the only adult male in Jamie’s life is jack-of-all-trades William (Billy Crudup). He’s a good-natured mechanic turned potter who nevertheless flirts with the kind of toxic masculinity that Dorothea wholeheartedly rejects. His nonstarter of a romance with Abbie is both humorous and sad, as is Dorothea’s pained reaction to their loud lovemaking. In this scene, as in so much of the rest of the film, a cubic ton of emotional weight is conveyed in a single facial expression – a look at once filled with love and embarrassment and deep concern. The look of a mother.

Jamie is the recipient of many such looks. Although frustrating in a narrative sense, he is purposefully a blank slate, listlessly dabbling in sex and drugs as he’s molded by his surroundings. His mom is profoundly aware of this, resulting in the kind of nature versus nature coming-of-age crisis rarely found on the big screen. The female characters are left to imprint their strengths and weaknesses onto this hormonal young man, with flickers of the person Jamie was and will be infrequently bursting through – like in the ceremonial checking of his mother’s stocks in the local paper. In these scenes we see every version of him at once: boy, young adult, man, hybrid of all three. Although not the most interesting character, his three guardians are.

Frequent Paul Thomas Anderson editor Leslie Jones brilliantly buttons this all together with stock photos and generous narration from Bening; in particular, a bit of time-jumping narration from Dorothea at the film’s midpoint carries it to new heights, at once sealing the character’s fate and raising her story’s stakes. It’s here that the movie begins to mirror life itself – a collection of joyous and painful and mundane moments that coalesce into a spiritual scrapbook. It doesn’t hurt that it’s occupied by some of the most fully realized screen characters of 2016.

The best passages of “20th Century Women” are better experienced than explained. Once past an uneven opening reel, something magical happens that can only be written off as a brilliant batch of actors meeting a cast of characters they were meant to play. Mills’ screenplay and direction are excellent, but it doesn’t quite explain the intangible transcendence of the final product. Bening and Gerwig are dynamite, their co-stars exceptional, and a late-game visual quote of Godfrey Reggio’s incredible 1982 documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” proves serendipitous in its synchronicity. “20th Century Women” is a near-perfect snapshot of “Life Out Of Balance,” one absolutely worth tracking down.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: December 28, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Mike Mills
Screenwriter: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use)