It’s perhaps absurd to insist that the female voice sings loud in Mike Mills’ I Am Easy to Find, a twenty-minute short film meets visual album meets visual poem in collaboration with American band The National. A male director working alongside an all-male band consisting of permanently disillusioned indie rockers doesn’t suggest a portrayal of women that paints them as anything other than muses. Yet Mills’ 20th Century Women has a trio of nuanced female characters. Carin Bessler, wife of National frontman Matt Berninger, wrote lyrics for two of the six songs in the film, and all of them prominently feature female singers, including Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan. I Am Easy to Find, which maps a woman’s life from cradle to grave in the space of twenty minutes, fuses the specificity of her experience with scenes of love, alienation, grief, and hope that feels universal.
The film features six songs from the album, which reveal a shift in The National’s sound away from the electronic discordancy of their previous album, Sleep Well Beast, towards violins, thundering drums, and choral singing. Shot in soft black and white, it’s a montage of a girl (played beautifully by Alicia Vikander) growing into womanhood and old age, that shows moments as earth-shattering as the loss of a parent to those as small as feeling the grass between your fingers on a summer afternoon. Mills doesn’t linger on any individual scene, and in the blink of an eye a full life made up of boredom, joy, and heartbreak has played out. Most scenes feature a caption that explains the action, as if each is a memory that has been titled and filed away to be recalled when needed. This is her father reading to her, this is realising her body is separated from the world around her, this is a girl at school who was hit by a car. You can’t help but recall your own memories, both milestones and seemingly insignificant moments that constitute being alive. The National have worked with Planned Parenthood several times, and experiences such as the woman’s first period and her teenage abortion act as an acknowledgement of what many still see as shameful.
Vikander playing the woman at every age sounds gimmicky, but she exhibits an exquisitely choreographed physicality that manages to feel authentic. Her performance as a toddler could’ve strayed into the cringe-inducing, but she looks right at home lying on the floor beside a real toddler, eyes darting with curiosity, legs swinging. Her parents, husband, and son age around her yet she lingers in a simultaneously changed and unchanged state, like a character from a myth. The film is also vague about the time period in which it’s set. The characters wear clothes that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1970s but their style doesn’t evolve over the lifetime the film covers, and it mostly takes place within a sparsely decorated old house devoid of tell-tale technology. Perhaps this detracts from a sense of authenticity; an overriding tastefulness screaming “arty music video.” But it is hard to not be absorbed by its simple but moving narrative that is in perfect harmony with The National’s soaring songs.
“If you wanna be alone, come with me”, Berninger sings in Rylan, one of the songs in the film. The lyric encapsulates the feeling of shared isolation that has characterised The National and made them so beloved by their fans. Working alongside Mike Mills, the band are still treading familiar emotional paths but reaching out empathetically, rather than turning inwards self-indulgently, and its a profoundly affecting experience.
by Laura Venning
Laura Venning is a Film Studies MA student from London. She’s particularly interested in female directors and Australian and New Zealand cinema. Her favourite films include A Matter of Life and Death, The Piano, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Cléo from 5 to 7. You can find her on twitter at @laura_venning