I’m not sure where we’d be in the film world right now without the erudite efforts of companies A24 and Annapurna Pictures. These two production and distribution entities have been responsible for the lion’s share of truly excellent cinema over the last 10 years, and added to that list is the film 20th Century Women, from writer/director Mike Mills (the superb Beginners). Every single creative decision in this film worked for me, there are six or seven lines of dialogue that are absolutely hysterical, there’s isn’t a bad performance in the ensemble, and visually the film is very stylish without ever being ostentatious.
A coming of age story for multiple characters set against the backdrop of 1979 Santa Barbara, this is a very liberal and progressive piece, with characters who are all flawed and layered, and rather than focus on contrived plot machinations, Mills allows his story to amble along, just observing these characters, all of whom are in some sort of existential transition. Films like this, where it’s all about the writing, are what I’m looking for these days.
Annette Benning (robbed of an Oscar nomination) leads the cast as a single mother raising a teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann), and who leans on a free-spirited tenant in her house (Greta Gerwig) and her son’s blossoming childhood friend (Elle Fanning) to help him through those emotionally and hormonally frustrating years. Billy Crudup steals all of his scenes as a chillaxed handyman who has ingratiated himself on both Benning and Gerwig.
I don’t want to reveal too much more than that, as the pleasure that this film elicits stems from the tender and thoughtful script, the generous performances, the cool and elegant cinematography from Sean Porter (Green Room, Kumiko,The Treasure Hunter), Leslie Jones’ clean, gliding editing, and the utterly sensational soundtrack with killer tracks from Talking Heads, Louis Armstrong, The Raincoats, Devo, David Bowie, and many more. I loved this milieu, with the end of one decade occurring and the beginning of the next taking shape, with punk in the background and sex in the air.
And yet, for as quality as this film is on every level, nobody saw it. And more importantly, few had the chance even if they wanted to. Saddled with a year-end release date where it had to compete with every awards bait title imaginable, 20th Century Women grossed just over $5 million in theaters and got no foreign release. Totally disheartening, as a film like this, in years past, would have been embraced by audiences as it would have been a studio movie with a hearty marketing budget.
But now, thoughtful pieces like this seem better suited to the daring distributors or as television programs; even though Mills beautifully wraps up each character by the end of 20th Century Women, I’d love to see these people expanded upon on the small screen, as a place like Netflix or Amazon seems well suited to this type of elevated material. Mills rightfully received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay which certainly makes me happy.
Review by Nick Clement