The Coming-of-Age Story can fall into one of two categories: Sublime when done well, but Worse than Anything when done poorly. 20th Century Women, a new film directed by Mike Mills (Beginners) flips this genre sideways by looking at a pivotal year in the life of a fifteen year old boy through his relationships with three strong and finely nuanced women. Set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979, 20th Century Women follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a dedicated single mom in her mid-50s, who is raising her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) during a time filled with cultural change and rebellion. Without a father figure in Jamie’s life, Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women to help her bring-up Jamie to be a good man. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a free-spirited, 20-something punk artist and cancer survivor who is a boarder in their home, while 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) is a troubled, promiscuous neighbor, who is also Jamie’s best friend. Billy Crudup also stars as William, a charming but aimless Handyman who also rents a room with the Fields home.
For anyone who lived through an important time of his or her life during 1979 (it was the year I graduated from high school, lost my virginity, and started college) 20th Century Women will feels like a unique, cliché-free set of life experiences that creates a pitch-perfect time capsule, dictated by a very specific time in pop culture history. Here are my Top Ten reasons why I love this film so much.
1. Even when she is horrible-piece-of-shit films like Greenburg, Greta Gerwig is the best thing in any movie she makes. I love everything about her character, Abbie, who reminded me of my former Punk Rock self, only way cooler.
2. The cinematography and art direction make each frame of the film look like a William Eggleston photograph.
3. Its depiction of the California Punk Rock scene in 1979 (which I was deeply immersed in) also manages to includes songs from the NYC’s No Wave scene and of course British First Wave Punk. The soundtrack reflects the film’s time period with music from artists who helped define the era: Devo, Suicide, The Germs, The Raincoats, Siouxsie and the Banshees, David Bowie, Buzzcocks and Black Flag. Holy Cow! I felt like someone stole my vinyl collection from this era and put it in the film.
4. The soundtrack also features and original score by Roger Neill, which is utterly transportive.
5. I wouldn’t really call myself a fan of the Talking Heads’ music, but three of their songs – “Don’t Worry about the Government,” “Artists Only” and “The Big Country” — are far superior to any their popular hits, and arguably better than most other songs on the planet. Two of these three songs are included on the soundtrack. You will have to see the movie to find out which ones. BTW I predict that this film will provoke a surge in downloads of the Talking Heads’ catalog.
6. There’s a 3D acid flashback visual effect that the filmmakers use to elucidate the feeling of traveling in a fast car as being comparable to moving across time. I’ve never seen anything like that before and it is so trippy and profoundly emotionally effective.
7. 20th Century Women reminded me so much of three of my favorite films, ever: Dazed and Confused, Almost Famous, and American Beauty. If you dig those films, then you will just love this one.
8. An old high school friend of mine makes a cameo appearance in the film, sort of by accident. Tony Reflex from the seminal Orange County punk band, Adolescents, can be seen in a photograph used in a montage that depicts the rise of the punk rock movement in the late 1970s. That was fun.
9. No meaningless violence or senseless tragedy. I hope that isn’t a spoiler for anyone.
10. It is just the best movie, and you should go see it!
20th Century Women — which was just nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for this year’s Golden Globes, opens in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, and Nationwide on January 20th, 2017. Music From The Motion Picture: 20th Century Women will be released digitally on December 16th, while a CD version will be released on January 13th 2017, followed by an LP version on February 10th, 2017.