The story is captivating because of the characters. Mills (Beginners) writes each character with a separate background, creating a sea of lives that at times can be hard to follow. For the first half of the film, I found myself wondering what the storyline even is. In my head there is a story throughout the film, but if you asked me to relay the story I would stumble through an answer. Involving so many different lives into one film is one of Mills's many talents. To add to the characters, everything is staged and filmed subtly and uniquely. Without detracting from the story, old footage is added to bring the audience back to the 70s. As someone who was not alive at the time, I might have found it hard to connect with the characters if it were not for this footage.
The casting for the film is also quite worthy of praise. Elle Fanning (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Super 8), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), and Billy Crudup (Watchmen, Almost Famous, Big Fish) support the two lead actors as they guide both of the main characters through the time period. The most praise must be given to Lucas Jade Zumann (Sinister 2) and Annette Bening (American Beauty). Zumann plays Jamie, a boy struggling with coming-of-age. His character is easily influenced by his surroundings and other characters. Zumann is a genuinely perfect fit for the role. Of course, most of the award nominations for the film have gone towards Bening's portrayal of Dorothea. Her performance is reminiscent of Charlotte Rampling's performance in 45 Years. It is subtle, yet endearing. Just as the plotline is hard to convey in text, her performance leaves a blank slate for praise in this review. It is blank because of a loss for words, not because it holds less value.
The Bottom Line: It takes a while to get rolling, but once you get the hang of it you will have trouble looking away from the awe-inspiring performances.