20th Century Women

20th Century Women ★★★★

I haven't done any reading about how this movie came to be. But as I watched it, a possible origin story began writing itself in my mind:

A filmmaker who has always wanted to make a film that celebrates the beautiful, complex, and influential women in his life, young and old, sees Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous for the first time.

He marvels at the young and fatherless William Miller's relationship with his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), who wants him to be safe and good and responsible and drug-free, and who has feelings about the trouble with popular music.

He marvels at young William's relationship with his gorgeous music-loving sister (Zooey Deschanel), who gives him her record collection and promises him that someday he'll be cool.

He is enchanted with the scenes of young William being embraced by, celebrated by, and sexually educated by a bunch of rock-star-obsessed girls who think of him as a cute toy brother, even though one of them — Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) — will break William's heart.

He isn't as interested in the stuff about the rock band William is following, but something about Billy Crudup as an irresponsible rock god who needs a good lecture from William's mother — who isn't made a villain, but gets to score solid wisdom points — makes an impression.

And so, with these Almost Famous impressions vividly in mind, this filmmaker goes and writes his own movie.

It's about a young William-like boy named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie, fatherless, is being raised by a complicated mother (Annette Bening) who has feeling about the trouble with popular music; by a young and gorgeous rock-loving woman who becomes his big sister (Greta Gerwig) and helps him learn to be cool; and by a younger gorgeous girl (Elle Fanning) who chases "inappropriate" men but sleeps beside him and frustrates his raging teen hormones and breaks his heart.

Oh, and then, as a sort of tribute to his inspiration, he casts Billy Crudup as an irresponsible handyman who needs a good lecture from Jamie's mother — who isn't made a villain, but gets to score solid wisdom points.

This may sound like the set-up to a dismissal of 20th Century Women as derivative. But no — Mike Mills takes those remarkable strengths from Almost Famous (yes, I'm presuming) and makes something new out of them. And that new thing meanders in its storytelling, gambles with a variety of styles, and gives a remarkable cast a lot of room to develop their characters. I've never seen a stronger performance from Bening; Gerwig is Gerwig, and that's a very good thing here; and Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie is remarkable, creating a perfectly believable mix of curiosity, confusion, frustration, and desire.

What a pleasure to see a film that isn't in any hurry; it just loves its messy and magnificent characters — all of them — and because of that, I do too.

In that sense, I can't help but wonder if Gerwig brought any of her experience on this film to her own Lady Bird. I sense some of this movie in that one, just as I hear echoes of Almost Famous all the way through this.

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