Writer/director Mike Mills brings a love to his characters and their stories that feels both honest and comforting, if not always easy. His previous film, Beginners tackled a family from, distinctly, the male side of things. This latest movie tackles family from the female, even though a young man remains at its core: the very talented Lucas Jade Zumann (Sinister 2).
Zumann’s 15-year-old is a canvass upon which the three women in his life paint and shape his course. It is Zumann’s job to absorb these lessons and accrete them into his performance, which he does admirably. He also gives just as much back with an ability that belies his years, but somehow retains the naivete that speaks to his character’s experience and age.
So let’s talk about these strong and complex women. First and foremost it is Annette Bening (Ginger & Rosa) as his mother who holds together this odd collective of people in 1979 Santa Barbara. Much like her equally great turn in The Kids are All Right, she stands as the matriarch of a self-made family trying to do right by everyone and just as often missing as hitting the mark, but ultimately surviving all of it. Helping Bening are Elle Fanning (Neon Demon) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha). Both deliver equally fantastic and complex performances, making this a very powerful triumvirate and an entirely entertaining and moving film.
There is another male of note around the edges of the movie, Billy Crudup (Jackie). His character is important, but not central. But like all of his performances, it is suggests quiet depths and an intensity just below the chiseled surface of his mien.
Mills chose a particularly interesting point in history to set the tale. He created a woman in Bening that survived the depression and WWII, learning much about her capabilities, but still swaddled by cultural expectations. There is a particularly poignant moment of the entire cast sitting around the television watching a political speech that crystallizes the differences in the generations in the house as the country moved into the Regan years; all the more cogent given this shifts this past election. But politics isn’t the key here, it is society and personal experience.
There isn’t a character in this film that doesn’t have a lot going on and whom we both get annoyed with and cheer for. It is a wonderful juggling act, full of humor and not a few reminders of what it is like to grow up… even as an adult.