There’s a general line between fiction and non-fiction film. On the one hand, you have completely fabricated stories with directors and actors and so forth creating a story. On the other, you have documentaries that focus entirely on real-life situations with (arguably) minimal intrusion by a filmmaker. But certain films tread that line such as films based on real individuals or, as in the case of “20th Century Women”, films that are fictionalized but based on past occurrences.
Written and directed by Mike Mills, “20th Century Women” focuses on Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a teenage boy growing up in Southern California in 1979. Raised by a single mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning), she recruits two other women, Julie (Elle Fanning), his best platonic friend, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a fellow tenant recovering from cancer, to help Jamie grow up in an ever changing world. Together, they navigate a difficult road of love, hopelessness, joy and emerging feminism.
The film is anchored by its strong characters, each of them with quirky characteristics and flaws. Their struggles with the basic facets of life (love, trust, understanding) keeps the film engaging as each of their personal journeys intersects. It veers dangerously close to melodrama at times, but keeps its momentum going towards its inevitable conclusion.
What writer-director Mike Mills is able to channel is a sense of omnipotence and global perspective. He relates the histories of his characters and all their trials and tribulations and is able to see the joy in each of them despite their hardships. It’s an emotional journey that comes from the heart, because it’s his story.