Director: Mike Mills
Screenplay: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Runtime: 118 Minutes
Mike Mills’s films make much use of his own upbringing, with stories which focus on extensive family lives and backdrops drawn from past inspirations. He has a distinct voice and mode of address through which he explores his own past on screen; with Beginners charting his later-day relationship with his father, and 20th Century Women a depiction of a boy’s childhood being raised in a house of women.
Sensing that her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is in need of a guidance, mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) asks lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and his friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help out where they can in raising him. Marking a tumultuous time in a young man’s life, the great conceit is in seeing all of these women bringing him up in different ways – and raises many of the quandaries that the film elegantly inspects.
In regard to gender, more specifically feminism, we see the evolution and open acceptance of it between different generations as the three women see their own approaches to their gender and sexuality in a kind of silent conflict for supremacy over Jamie’s worldview. Although all with the best intentions, it’s a form of soundless combat that manifests in different ways both touching and daringly funny, including an extended confrontation at the dining table that walks carefully between cringe-worthy comedy and an exploration of the characters ongoing anxieties.
This sense of rebellion in the characters against everything they are told by society is so representative of the film’s attitude to its setting of 1979 California. The film laments the decline of the counterculture 60s and the depressing turn that the country will take as the Regan administration is about to take hold. This structure they crave is to prepare Jamie for a world of tighter structure, with the picture holding onto this melancholy and trying to remain calm to the Zen/ meditative sounds of Roger Neill’s score.
It benefits greatly that it’s led by three fantastic performances in Bening, Gerwig and Fanning. Bening is rarely unremarkable, here channelling something of a sadder, lonelier vision of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty as she tries to come to terms with age catching up with her, being supplanted by a generation fronted with the likes of Gerwig’s terrifically hilarious yet tragic punk chick, and Fanning’s sexually promiscuous and naïve youth. There’s also a great contribution from a subdued Billy Crudup, and relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann is impressive as the young Jamie.
There’s little to explain plot-wise, as the film explores moments and scenes through evolution with no real dramatic aggression or agency. It’s not a story of big moments so much as it one of experience and mild growth, all the while being made fully aware of the paths they will all go on to lead via ongoing narrations of everyone looking back on their pasts – marked by some occasionally bewildering text overlays that mark off the details.
The film is so warmly shot and lit, with a direction that closes in on rooms and blocked off locations of their large and crumbling home that they are trying to preserve. It might be to a bit too in touch with contemporary quirks and idealised comforts for some, but this feels like Mike Mills's most reflective drama; an enjoyable, funny and warm portrait of an idiosyncratic childhood.