“Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed.”: On 20th Century Women

Mike Mills really is one of the most humane artists I’ve come across. I found this film genuinely life-changing to the point that I find it very difficult to articulate just what it is about it that made me fall for it to the extent I did.

Perhaps it’s because it’s the closest experience in cinema I’ve had to my experiences of reading Woolf. Mills perfects this style he used so brilliantly in the lovely Beginners that approaches stream-of-consciousness. He’s unafraid to have a character read an extract from a book in a voice-over; to show archival still photography; to include an extract from another film. The film feels guided by Mills’ own thoughts. It’s also genuinely funny. From the hilarious dinner scene involving a both intriguing and delightfully uncomfortable (maybe it’s due to being from one of the most repressed areas in Western Europe – but I really felt for the exasperated mother in the scene) discussion of menstruation – to the wit of the film’s characters: it earns its descriptor of comedy. It’s also genuinely warm and optimistic: this is not a film against anything – it’s a loving portrait of humanity. And of course there’s the link in the film’s brilliant dealing with feminism. Not just the lodger Abbie’s radical feminism and her influence on Jamie: but Dorothea’s revolutionary actions. No one is limited by their gender – in the wake of the underlying acceptance of misogyny in society as seen through recent political developments (what might I be referring to?) – this film is unfortunately relevant.

Yet it’s still very rooted in its time. Especially for its brilliant capturing of punk rock and of dancing.

Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling, and they don’t have any skill, and they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?”

The performances are among of the best I’ve ever seen. Billy Crudup delivers the best performance I’ve seen from him (and I think he’s always wonderful) as the kind potter William. Elle Fanning continues to be nothing short of breath-taking in a role that, acted badly, could be reduced to a simple rebellious, edgy teen who becomes more irritating with every year one passes: but as Julie her intelligence radiates as it has done ever since her remarkable turn in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Greta Gerwig acts, as always, with a compassion, intelligence, intensity, warmth, depth, and beauty that I think is only matched by the great Diane Keaton, as cervical cancer survivor and punk-rocking, forward-thinking photographer, Abbie. She is, as Hermione Hoby recently called her, ‘The Indie Queen’. Of course, the whole film would fall apart if Mills’ surrogate Jamie was not well-acted. Lucky, then, that Lucas Jade Zumann is incredible in this complex role. The role required, like for Julie, to rise above the teen-movie archetype a lesser actor might have gone for. The performance is emotionally spot-on and fully realized. And of course, what is there left to say of Annette Bening’s awe-inspiring performance as Jamie’s mother and the true centre of the film, Dorothea? Bening goes for no cliché. She is not strict-yet-kind; not an angel; but a woman: with all of her flaws and all of her brilliance intact. Bening’s performance as Dorothea is of the standard to carry the film on its own: that the film doesn’t simply ride on its coattails makes the performance and the film all the more magical.

The music is perfect. From Talking Heads’ masterpiece ‘The Big Country’, to the great insurgency of the sadly-underrated The Raincoats, to the great swing music of Dorothea’s youth. And then there is the score. Roger Neill’s evocative score is so powerful and does so much for the film’s structure – just as he did on Beginners – guiding the viewer through the music. The score is always wistfully out-of-reach, fading as it shimmers – evoking this sense of beautiful nostalgia that is at once haunting and wonderfully light. Sean Porter’s gorgeous cinematography, too, gives this sense.

Which is what the film is like. This film refuses to judge. It depicts heartbreaking moments in a beautifully light manner. When the film reaches its final shot – after a tying-up of loose ends that includes how the characters would die – I felt uplifted, not depressed. Mike Mills has created a masterpiece of beautiful sincerity – and all of those involved have provided some of their most incredible work to help give it shape. Mills is one of the most humane artists I’ve encountered, and the film can be read as a beautiful love-letter to humanity itself whilst also being an intensely beautiful love-letter to the 20th Century Women who made him who he his. And he is the sort of artist we should be thankful for. This film is an antidote to cynicism in a way very few other films can claim.

This is a film for the ages.

Some things just can’t be fixed. Just be there.”


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