The most unusual and violent scene in director Mike Mills‘ 20th Century Women is the opening scene. A car suddenly bursts in flames in the parking of a supermarket. The year is 1979. Is this a violent act (not unusual for a period when racial and political clashes often turned so) or some mafia coup? It turns that it’s just an old car overheating. That’s the most extreme scene, the rest, even some fist-fight between teenagers, is just life. Real life, brought to screen with talent and emotion in one of the best films I have seen lately.
It could be the story of the coming to age of a 15 years boy with a rather intrusive and dominant single mother. It could be a film about a period of confusion in history, or better said the beginning of many consecutive periods of confusion, when values were eroding and the old generation of leaders were having too many doubts to be able to continue to lead. It may be the story of a single mother, born after WWI, raised during the Big Depression, who dreamed to become a fight pilot but WWII ended to early for her to fulfill this dream, who fell in love, gave birth to a child, got divorced, and raises her child as well as she understands, in the friendly and tolerant atmosphere of California ten years after the Flower Power era. It may be the story of three women at three different ages of their lives coping with loneliness and failed relations. It may be all these and more.
The characters in 20th Century Women are weird because they are true. They are actually weird as in real life, weird as each one of us is. Fabulous acting helps to make these characters live persons which remain with you as viewer long after the screening ends. Annette Bening as the aging mother gives a performance which reminded me some of Meryl Streep‘s finest. Elle Fanning acts literally since she was a toddler, and grows into becoming a formidable actress – this may be the role we shall remember years later of her as a growing and mature teens (but are not teen girls more mature than teen boys as a rule?). Greta Gerwig is a real revelation, she enters her messy character and makes it true. Lucas Jade Zumann succeeds to be real, complex, and likeable – with him Hollywood has a new teenager idol, I hope it will not break but rather lunch his career. I do not know where director Mike Mills hid until now, but before I applaud his work I would like to praise script author Mike Mills who wrote a story that lives on screen, moves the viewers and brings back the time when things started to go wrong but the emotions and kindness of the people prevailed which is always a reason to hope. The only objection I would have is related to the exaggerated use of quotes, this may have tried to convey a feeling of what the characters were reading and were influenced by, this seemed a little precious and verbose – too little shade however for a shining film experience.