It needs to be clear, because I do not use these words lightly: 20th Century Women reminded me a lot of Almost Famous. The reason I want to make this clear is because Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I don’t just go around passing out Almost Famous comparisons whenever I can, but here we are.
Remember how Everybody Wants Some!! was promoted as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused? If I didn’t know better and someone just told me 20th Century Women was a spiritual sequel to Almost Famous, I’d believe that person. Of course, 20th Century Women, which just premiered at the New York Film Festival, is directed by Mike Mills (who directed Beginners and did not play bass guitar for R.E.M.) and not Cameron Crowe, but there’s something that feels like vintage Cameron Crowe going on in this movie. (And, yes, the fact that it’s set in the 1970s and Billy Crudup has his “Russell from Stillwater” haircut does go a long way to help this comparison. But there’s much more.) Anyway, yes, this is my way of saying that 20th Century Women is terrific.
Not to take this comparison too far (I know I’m on the cusp of doing that, or maybe right over the cusp), but imagine if Almost Famous told the story from Elaine Miller’s perspective. That she’s the main character in the movie instead of William Miller. That’s kind of what we’re getting with 20th Century Women.
Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Dorothea (a terrific Annette Bening) is the divorced mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) — Jamie is a 15-year-old in search of meaning who isn’t always a big fan of going to school. Dorothea rents a room to a photographer and punk rock connoisseur, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) who tries to teach Jamie how to be cool (there’s a lot of Taking Heads music in 20th Century Women) and how to be a feminist. Billy Crudup’s former hippie handyman, William, lives there, too. Jamie’s friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), does not live there, but she sleeps over every night. Jamie is in love with Julie. Julie is not in love with Jamie, even though she sleeps in his bed every night. This eventually causes conflict.
The relationship between these characters is not explained with clunky exposition. Instead, we are presented with vignettes spread throughout the film with everyone’s backstory one by one. It winds up being a good stylistic decision. This is a nice movie filled with music, wonderment, and damaged relationships. There’s no hard and steady “plot” as much as it’s just spending time with these characters for a specific amount of time. These are my favorite types of movies: where we spend time with characters that I like, as opposed to some great threat or scheme that they must all deal with. I think, more than anything, that’s why I compare it to Almost Famous: The characters are just that good. (Okay, yes, and the fact Billy Crudup is in the movie with that haircut.)
Annette Bening’s Dorothea, who lived through The Great Depression, is living in a world she doesn’t always understand anymore. One of the best moments is the look on her face when she tries to listen to a Black Flag album, followed by dancing to the Talking Heads with Crudup’s William. And there are plenty of undertones about the fact that Jamie doesn’t have a man in his life to raise him — something that was still a little unusual in 1979 — and what that’s even supposed to mean.
A little over halfway through the movie, something really interesting happens: Dorothea starts narrating her own death, which won’t come for another 20 years. She talks about the near future — and almost gleefully points out that these dumb kids don’t realize their precious punk movement is about to die with Reagan’s America — and laments that kids will stop dreaming about being annihilated in a nuclear war, but instead dream about being annihilated by our own changing weather patterns. It’s a weird retrospect, delivered in the present we are watching. We learn everyone’s future, but we never go there. We stay in the mostly blissful 1979, even though that year kind of sucked, too.
20th Century Women is Mike Mills’ best movie and the movie that will bring him mainstream recognition. In retrospect, I kind of regret all the Almost Famous references (and mentioning it in the title) because it almost feels like I’m making a subtle suggestion that 20th Century Women doesn’t quite stand as its own film and has to be compared to something else in order to find its substance. This could not be further from the truth. But I will leave all of those comparisons in here because if there’s a chance one more person might see 20th Century Women because it reminded someone of Almost Famous, then so be it. But, just like that movie, I just want to spend more time with these characters. These are great characters. And that’s the reason why 20th Century Women is so terrific.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.