What happened to Mike Mills? Seriously. I must know. Should I blame his marriage to Miranda July? Actually, this would be a shame, because I quite like both of July’s films. But something awful has happened to him. I remember responding positively to Thumbsucker when it came out; I seem to recall it being insightful and touching in equal measure. But then came Beginners, an interminable slog of half-baked ideas and scenes that go absolutely nowhere. And now we have 20th Century Women.
And I wish we didn’t. It’s a bad film, but at least it’s bad in a relatively instructive way. The plot, such as it is, concerns divorcée Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) and her son Jaime (striking newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, who I certainly hope has a long career ahead of him). She’s worried about her son not having any male role models now that his father lives across the country, so she enlists the help of two women to help ‘raise’ him. These are Jaime’s best friend, Julie, with whom he is in love and wishes to have sex, and Dorothea’s tenant, Abigail, who is ultra into feminism and likes to talk about menstruation with complete strangers.
Mike Mills has no idea how to structure his film. There is no first act, second act… nothing that remotely feels like rising action or a denouement. All of 20th Century Women is just one extended, monotonous passage. Mills worsens this by providing Suicide Squad-like expository montages to provide backstory for all the major characters, but these montages don’t occur in just the first half of the film. They occur all throughout, even for characters we’ve already spent over an hour with. In fact, Bening’s character narrates her own death, in voiceover, at about the halfway point, before all these expositional wonders are even over. Mills never orients the audience to our place in the narrative, so his film turns irritatingly incessant.
He also has no idea how to control his movie’s tone; it’s what I’d call ‘solemnly quirky’ all the way through. Tender moments, comic moments, dramatic moments—all pitched at the same level, hammering out of the work any sense of insight or import. During one of the film’s most serious passages, the phrase ’incompetent cervix’ drifted onto the soundtrack, evoking from me uncontrollable paroxysms of laughter—the exact wrong response. I don’t blame me, I blame Mills.
And what is 20th Century Women supposed to be about? I cannot tell, for the life of me. Mills obviously has affection for his characters, and has something (puerile, unsophisticated) to say about sexual politics, but these two things don’t reconcile in any meaningful way. You know, Christopher Nolan often makes the mistake of having his characters just talk about his themes rather than dramatising them. But at least Nolan has a handle on what his themes actually are, what he’s trying to get across to an audience. Looking at 20th Century Women, it honestly seems like Mills doesn’t have a clue what he wants to communicate. He gave birth to a preemie without a central nervous system.
Making things worse is Greta Gerwig. Truthfully, I don’t wish to be too harsh, but she lacks any semblance of screen presence. Gerwig is, on some level, fascinating, as she seems a blatant anachronism in literally every film I’ve ever seen her in, regardless of genre or time period. She never fits. There is something about her, at least partially due to her discernible lack of talent, that I find more than simply off-putting. And every time she appeared onscreen I had an uncontrollable urge to poop. (Okay, okay; that was entirely uncalled for. To be fair, I was drinking coffee during my screening of 20th Century Women, so I’m willing to attribute 50% of my gastrointestinal reaction to the laxative effects of coffee.)
At least the presence of Annette Bening balances this out. She is one of those actresses, like Laura Dern or Julianne Moore, who commands your attention and sucks you into the frame. Bening is so good at playing complex, intelligent women, that you may not even notice how little Mike Mills gives her to do here. There are truly sweet, tender moments between her and the equally excellent Zumman. These moments are far too few in number, but they are more or less evenly distributed throughout the film.
So that this review isn’t too negative, let me throw some praise upon Elle Fanning, also. In The Neon Demon, Live by Night, and now here, she carves out a detached, sensuous screen persona—like Catherine Deneuve back in the day. It has been fascinating watching her turn into a star, and she is one of 20th Century Women’s few bright points. And, okay, Billy Crudup is good at playing basically a washed-up Russell Hammond of Stillwater. I’ve seen him on Broadway a few times; roles like this are far beneath his abilities.
So to sum up: Meh. Here’s what I recommend to Mike Mills: if you must write another screenplay, give your draft to a fellow WGA member to touch up. Then, give it to a completely different person, like maybe your wife, to direct. You might have something, then.