2016 will probably go down as a relatively disappointing year for movies that got a lot of attention leading up to the calendar year. Big, expensive and largely unsatisfying blockbusters, reboots and other such things crowded the landscape, which wouldn't have been a problem if more of them delivered on their promise. On the flipside of things, more, perhaps seemingly modest movies that didn't cost nine figures to make delivered in spades this year. 20th Century Women is one of those movies. It is maybe one of the best of those movies in a year full of quietly wonderful movies.
20th Century Women tells the story of three women who are living in Souther California in the late 70s who are trying to come to terms with themselves at different periods in their lives. There is Dorothea (Annette Bening), an aging mom who is struggling to understand herself, and her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer in her 20s who is struggling with deep-rooted personal issues as well as an external health crisis and Julie (Elle Fanning), a teenager who is rebelling against her surroundings in a changing world.
A movie like this works because of the people in it. It is a very simple premise and it lives and dies by the execution. Writer/director Mike Mills has a specific talent for telling human stories in a very human way. His last directorial effort Beginners was definitive evidence of that. Not to mention that it was good enough to finally get Christopher Plummer a sorely earned Oscar. 20th Century Women is very much another success for Mike Mills in that way. The movie feels honest and taps into something very universal. Even if you didn't grow up in the 70s like the young people in this movie or if you didn't live through the depression like Dorothea, there is something for everyone to latch onto here. It manages to be emotionally powerful with the lightest of touches. There is no trace of a heavy hand to be found. Heavy handedness can kill a movie like this in a heartbeat.
The movie was beautifully shot and Mike Mills deserves a lot of the credit for his direction and a great scritp, no doubt. But the real hero of this movie is the casting director. If not them, then whoever was responsible for assembling the core cast for this movie, because it is easily one of the best collective performances by an ensemble cast you will see this year. Annette Bening reminds us why she is Annette Benning and gives arguably her best performance since American Beauty. Elle Fanning continues to mature before our eyes into one of the finest young actresses working in the business today and if you don't find Greta Gerwig unbelievably charming and lovable in this movie, I would express concern for your general state of well-being. Outside of the women in 20th Century Women, the fellas do a damn fine job as well. Lucas Jade Zumann comes out of nowhere and crushes, with Billy Crudup providing true balance by playing the perfect everyman, at least a 70s everyman. Individually, the cast all delivers but as a unit, the chemistry is truly special and makes this movie connect.
20th Century Women is a dramedy. Not in a corny, "made for TV" kind of way that people might think, but it is emotionally anchored drama with a lot true, effective situational comedy. Nothing feels forced. Not for a second. You are likely to find yourself smiling an awful lot and laughing just as much. If not, again, I feel for your damaged heart. Who hurt you? Also, the title of this movie may make it seem like a "chick flick." I can't emphasize just how much it is not a chick flick. Do not let that dissuade you from seeing this movie, because it is very likely to bring you some, if not a whole bunch of joy. What else are movies for if not to make our lives more joyful?
My only concern for a movie like 20th Century Women is that it will not find the audience it sorely deserves. It is a movie that feels like it is impossible to hate. It doesn't have any superheroes or explosions to hide behind. No glory shots for the poster. It is merely a beautifully told story with a killer cast that delights on every level. It also happens to have one of the best, brief descriptions of why punk rock is great in the history of mankind. Please, do not let this movie get buried under the weight of some obscure Netflix sub-category in the coming years. It deserves much, much better than that. 20th Century Women opens in theaters on December 25 from A24.