It’s fun researching new first-time Academy Award nominees, and often quite enlightening. No career path is the same, even if most, if not all of the beginnings communicate the same messages of struggle and perseverance. For 20th Century Women writer/director Mike Mills, the journey must have seemed long with its own peaks and valleys, but there was still no shortage of gradual success. 2005’s Thumbsucker was a quiet indie hit, 2010’s Beginners garnered an Oscar victory for supporting actor Christopher Plummer and now 20th Century Women has given Mills his own chance at gold for Best Original Screenplay.
Set in the twilight of the 1970s, Mills’s semi-autobiographical work depicts an older mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), feel as though she’s exponentially struggling to relate and connect to her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), as he goes through the gauntlet of adolescence. Feeling desperate to ensure that he receives care, maturation and a forming sense of identity, she enlists the help of a progressive tenant, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and his childhood best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning).
For those of you previously familiar with Beginners – and it should be noted that this is spoken from the lens of someone unfamiliar with Thumbsucker – it won’t be hard to find too many similarities between it and 20th Century Women. Mills features many of the same themes here, including unconventional family relations and dynamics, middle-aged and older adults feeling lost, loss, self-discovery and the connections between past and present. Yet, in spite of how acquainted we are with these particular ruminations in Mills’s work, it seems they are better examined and in greater detail than Mills has previously achieved.
Part of this is due to the rich tapestry he creates with each character. The narrative’s primary focal point is easily identifiable thanks to the title, but it seems a greater array of personalities sees Mills demonstrate a greater improvement upon already existing skill in carefully crafting protagonists and giving them an evenly distributed semblance of importance. The film isn’t just about these three female protagonists and their relationship to the world, but it’s also about the relationship between mother and son. These characters are bolstered by strong performances from their actors, but what makes them so interesting is who they are and where they stand in the social and political contexts that Mills places them.
It’s 1979, and by this point, the counterculture scene has seen various evolutions, as well as the people who were and are either wholly or peripherally involved with them. Though the struggles between William (Billy Crudup), Jamie, Julie, Abbie and Dorothea heavily differ based upon their varying places in life through age and gender, the common thread between all of them is the struggle of coming to terms with the difference between who and where they want to be and who and where they currently are. From that basic template, Mills is able craft thoroughly relatable personalities that come together to form a narrative that remains effortlessly timeless, in spite of the particular point of human history they occupy.
It’s fascinating to watch Mills interweave explorations of alternative views of masculinity, what it takes to be masculine and corresponding thoughts about femininity and feminism, but as thought-provoking as these themes are individually, it’s how Mills uses them to fuel a curious existentialist mode that makes the narrative more personal and heartfelt. In fact, such tones are often in place of traditional forms of narrative conflict, something even Beginners was lacking entirely. Much of the character struggles in 20th Century Women are more implicitly known than surface level, and with such sensitive direction from Mills, the raw human emotion he extracts from every scene makes up for conflict’s absence.
With such internal knowledge of past, present and future, the film can’t help escaping more melancholic persuasions, especially in its use of humor. It is at once a nostalgic snapshot and transparent admission of the factors we often wish to omit in such modes of thought. And when it grounds its coming-of-age facets in reality, 20th Century Women becomes a film for everyone. It’s a realistic approach that doesn’t forsake the hopefulness of youth and adulthood, creating a much larger impact with its tonal consistency and nuances, and therefore evoking an enthralling beauty that makes the viewer wish they could spend more time in this less than ideal world.
So all the best goes to Mr. Mills in his pursuit of Oscar glory. Between this film and Beginners, you’ve made a new fan out of this writer, and hopefully many, many more.