20th Century Women is more affective than effective.
Mike Mills’ late seventies drama is far too quirky for its own good, often feeling more like a dramatised video essay than a narrative film. Mills provides a rake of social context for his story, from samples of Lodger to references to The Man Who Fell to Earth. He plays an extended section of President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Conscience” address to the nation and even inserts some footage from Koyaanisqati. Characters monologue (and even dialogue) over careful compositions as the camera tracks across footage.
Everything in 20th Century Women feels overstated. It is not enough to have characters quote extended passages from contemporary literature and poetry, Mills makes sure to cite his sources up on screen. The result is that 20th Century Women feels more like an annotated thesis statement than an engaging story. Mills keeps the camera at a distance from his characters, constantly moving through scenes instead of allowing them to develop organically. Everything is quirky and arch.
The result is that 20th Century Women suffocates its most interesting elements; its characters, its cast, its engagement with American masculinity and femininity on the cusp of Reaganism. This is a movie that strives so hard for authenticity that it only exposes its artifice.