20th Century Women

Mike Mills’s follow up to “Beginners” tries to be too profound for too many generations

20thCenturyWomen PosterMike Mills’s “20th Century Women” is trying to be too profound for too many different people. It aims to encapsulate the life experience of men and women, adolescents and adults, mothers and daughters, yuppies and the ordinary. And it does so in a string of literary axioms and bluntly illustrated anecdotes. It attains higher meaning only in doses, a result of a smattering of smartly written scenes and thoughtful performances. But it’s never universal, namely because it’s trying too hard to be.

The three women in teenage Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) life are his divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his wants-to-be-much-closer-yet-still-platonic best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and his mother’s 30-something roommate who acts like a cool, older sister Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dorothea senses that because he doesn’t have a strong male presence in his life, what Jamie really needs is a stronger female influence. Continue reading “20th Century Women”


In a smattering of close-up pictures and jump cuts, Mike Mills accelerates us through time and history during his film “Beginners.” He points out the sun, the stars, the president and what emotions look like. These symbols have come to define us, but they’re endowed by someone else, by society. His story is about three people learning to communicate their own personalities and embrace the idea and feeling of happiness, not just the image.

Few films are truly about communication. Even “The Social Network” merely analyzes speech patterns, internal coding and societal trends. “Beginners” understands that the words and symbols themselves have no meaning except the meaning we assign to them. Society has branded Hal (Christopher Plummer) as the member of a happy American family, complete with a job, wife, child and home in the suburbs. But after his wife dies, Hal, at the age of 75, confesses to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) that he’s gay.

This comes months before Hal’s death, yet in the time before and after Hal’s death, Oliver is just as confused with the symbols of success and friendship he’s been presented with. He does not begin to change until he meets the lovely Anna (“Inglourious Basterds’” Melanie Laurent) and she asks him, “Why are you at a party if you’re so sad?”

The beauty of that question is twofold. Firstly, why would anyone even think to ask a question like that? Aren’t their emotions simply implied by the people around them? But secondly, she asks this question with a pad and pencil. She has laryngitis, but not by accident, and not for the filmmaker to be cute. Look at how clearly Anna learns how to communicate with Oliver without words and even without expression behind makeup at a costume party.

“Beginners” speaks without speaking at all, and it is eloquent and beautiful in its quiet. Continue reading “Beginners”