20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016, Mike Mills)
Even if it hadn’t obliterated me by the end, leaving me a sobbing mess on the floor of the theater, I’d still be over the moon for this thing based on everything else that’s pitch perfect about it. Warm without being treacly, emotional without being melodramatic, smart without being arrogant, and witty without being pretentious. It gets away with being about big ideas — like life, family, sex, love, and human connection and the search for meaning — by somehow lasering its focus on a narrow slice of time, in a specific place. The clothes aren’t overly designed and sparkling clean from a costumer’s rack; they’re frayed and stained, overused and comfortable. The appliances weren’t bought in 1979; they’ve been around since 1972 because things lasted that long back then. Thick, heavy cords run across the ironing board. The record player takes a second to crank up to 33 rpm. Photographs are dulled and bleeding color, but the paper is thick. This movie feels not just like a snapshot of a time, but like it’s still happening. The two hours you spend in front of the screen is all you get to live with it, but it was going on before you got there and will continue pulsing after you leave.
Mills found a gorgeous tone of empathy and kindness with his great 2010 film BEGINNERS, but he steps it up here, proving himself to be one of the sharpest eyes and ears for visual art working in America today. His actors move within the frame without looking like they’re hitting marks; there’s an effortlessness to the way his numerous dialogue scenes are staged. Arguments don’t happen with people waiting to get their line in and with practiced interruptions; they are real and they cut. Nobody here is flawless but nobody is angelic. It’s so refreshing to see a film about three-dimensional human beings that aren’t props for a story or clumsy concepts.
A huge reason these characters come alive is this cast. Greta Gerwig has never been better, nor has Elle Fanning (which is saying something about two remarkable actresses), and Billy Crudup relaxes into a performance that supports without trying to steal. He knows when he’s a side dish. Newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann is a terrific find and a real talent (watch his expression when Gerwig instructs him to put on his “most inscrutable face”); if it weren’t for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’s Lucas Hedges, this would be the most truthful teenager on screen in 2016. But this film belongs to Annette Bening, a consistently underrated actress who has a career moment with this — her Dorothea is a role filled with impressive lines and big scenes, but it’s Bening’s face that expresses a woman who knows so much, has so many conflicting motivations, and is overflowing with compassion. She’s the mommest mom you’ll ever see on a movie screen.
Mills structures his film not unconventionally — it begins with a subtle task (Bening asking Gerwig and Fanning to help Zumann through his awkward teens) and has a climactic culmination — but he lets the edges of the story become the meat of it: it’s how dancing becomes an unspoken symbol of connection; how distance between people within a shot floods you with anxiety. There could be essays and essays written on what this movie has to say about feminism, technology, parenting, and the bygone era of Carter’s America. I won’t waste your time with incipient thoughts on those subjects. The most important takeaway I have immediately is that this is a huge, bold, staggering achievement, full of the kind of red-blooded feeling you go to the movies for. And, much like Linklater’s EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! from earlier in 2016, it’s a movie so kind and selfless that you feel a twinge of pain entering the real world when it’s over. When the lights go up and you’re in 2017 and an army of fuckfaces led by Trump are about to annihilate civility in government, when assholes and thugs infest almost every street you turn down, you want to do nothing more than turn right back around and climb back into the comforting, exhilarating, eyes-open exploration of life, humanity, and everything that makes it bitter and sweet that is 20th CENTURY WOMEN.