THE NEW YORKER: His interest is in people and their trajectories; a maximalist, he wants to reveal the entirety of his characters’ lives and minds. In “20th Century Women,” the five main characters periodically narrate their own and one another’s biographies. Their stories are accompanied by montages of period photos intended to create an air of credence. A believer in sympathetic magic, Mills gathers dog-eared objects and forgotten rituals to summon a world of mixtapes and Judy Blume and Three Mile Island and skateboarders who grab their boards behind their front leg.
Julie (Elle Fanning), a seventeen-year-old who cuddles with Jamie—and sleeps with older, dumber boys—reads “The Road Less Travelled” and uses the language of self-help as a weapon. Bening wears Jan Mills’s jewelry, and we see the wooden rabbit that Jan carved after reading “Watership Down.” “Mike is obsessed by exploring the connection between the dramatic and the real,” the director Lance Hammer, a neighbor of Mills’s, said. “I think it comes from the need to believe he’s actually here, that he’s not having a dream, not floating away.”
Directing like a designer—re-creating the family scrapbook down to the last pilled sweater long gone to Goodwill—has its risks. Some critics find Mills’s work quirky or precious; some find it inert. The Boston Globe called “Beginners” “the passive work of a man nervous to touch the third rail of his parents’ discontent.” Yet his films lure you in with their precise, unemphatic presentation, their accrual of details—a heap of oily rags that could ignite at any time. Joachim Trier, the Norwegian director, said, “There’s a Todd Rundgren-ness to Mike’s work, a Steely Dan coolness, the melancholy low light of a late California afternoon in Laurel Canyon.” MORE