As someone who regards the artistic output from the late ‘70s as the pinnacle of modern culture, 20th Century Women – set amongst arty, middle class Californians in that era – should be right up on my alley. On the other hand, this is a film from indie director Mike Mills. I irrationally hated Mills’ Beginners, resisting its oh-so-twee montage and fastidiously overwrought screenplay.
So it comes as no surprise that I’m deeply conflicted in my reaction to this film. 20th Century Women is equal parts intoxicating and infuriating. It’s about nothing – despite flashes of cancer or teen romance, it remains resolutely undramatic – yet it’s also about everything: the meaning of life, the purpose of art, the big questions we ask ourselves without ever finding answers.
When 20th Century Women gently gives itself over to its incredible cast – Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning (to a lesser extent) – it’s powerfully evocative, encouraging introspection. If it was happy to be that, it would have been a beautiful, simple film. But too often Mills indulges his worst impulses, forcing unnecessary clarity upon us. Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech plays over footage of Koyaanisqatsi, and the spell is broken. Killer soundtrack, though.