20TH CENTURY WOMEN (USA/16/119mins)
Directed by Mike Mills. Starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
THE PLOT: In late 1970s California, Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) live together in a large house, along with lodgers Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). The film navigates the relationships that Jamie forms between his mother, his housemate and Julie (Elle Fanning) the girl he has a crush on and who climbs in his window to sleep beside him every night.
THE VERDICT: ’20th Century Women’ is an examination of three generations of women in the late 1970s, and the choices they make in their lives. While the characters are well rounded, verbose and interesting, they are also let down by a script that has some lovely scenarios, but very little story.
Annette Bening leads the cast as the vibrant and engaging Dorothea, and makes a woman who grew up in the 1920s essential and bright, but also relatable and fun. Bening easily carries the film on her shoulders, and is the lynchpin that holds the film together. Greta Gerwig makes Abbie a lost but determined young woman who has moved away from her family, but thinks she knows what she wants in her life. Gerwig makes Abbie the least familiar character we have seen her play on screen to date, but she is also a character we have seen in film before. Still, Gerwig is vibrant and engaging on screen. Elle Fanning rounds out the central trio of women as a troubled young woman who is fascinating, but pushes people away from her. Billy Crudup makes William a fun character, and Lucas Jade Zumann makes Jamie a relatable teenager throughout the film.
Mike Mills’ screenplay gives a lot of focus to the characters in the film, making them rounded, engaging, verbose and relatable, but they seriously struggle to make the film feel like a contained story, as there is very little story to keep the scenes joined together. Several moments throughout the film are charming and filled with heart, but they never truly come together to make this well written, slightly pretentious film a narrative as a whole.
As director Mike Mills makes sure that the actors make their characters feel like truly real people on screen, and they are often vibrant and utterly engaging, but they struggle to keep the momentum of the film moving, since there is very little in the way of story to be told. That said, it is a delight to spend time with Dorothea and her house of assorted characters as they try to find where they belong in a newly feminist world.
In all, ’20th Century Women’ has a great cast, strong characters and lovely dialogue, but there is a sincere lack of story to hold this drifting and loose story together.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Writer/director Mike Mills has a talent for telling personal stories drawn from his own life. Beginners was inspired by the relationship with his late father. His new film 20th Century Women is semi-autobiographical, with characters based on ones he knew growing up in California in the 1970s.

    Santa Barbara, 1979. The era of free love is over, as the turbulent 1980s approach. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mother to 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). She’s her own person and keeps to herself, preferring to stay at home and not engage with the outside world all that much. That includes men, who aren’t sure about her stand-offish approach. Handyman William (Billy Crudup) is doing work on the house and has tried his charms on her and Jamie, with no results. More effective are twentysomething artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and the teenage Julie (Elle Fanning). They hang around the house a lot, Abbie instructing Jamie on feminism and understanding women, while Julie is a close friend who sleeps over but doesn’t want anymore than that with Jamie. Dorothea is happy to raise Jamie without any strong male influence in his life, instead relying on herself, Abbie and Julie to guide him through his difficult teenage years…

    This simple but effective story of three multi-generational women raising a teenage boy is a charmer from the outset. Whereas Beginners was a more male-driven story, 20th Century Women is just that. A female-driven film in which the lead roles are very well-written, with a keen and honest understanding of a womens’ nature and how they interact with each other and the men in their lives. Who says there aren’t good roles written for women anymore, especially for those of a certain age? Mills hasn’t gone all feminist here with his Oscar-nominated script. Instead, he’s framing Jamie through the perspectives of these women and their own varied and interesting lives. Jamie is a good kid, but he’s still finding his own way, making the transition from being a boy to a man.

    There’s a lot of humour in how this develops over the story, while accepting that people are flawed and make mistakes. Through some well-placed voiceover, Mills even fast-forwards a little bit in the characters’ lives to tell us what awaits them. There’s no sense of sadness – just acceptance of the erratic nature of life. The cast do a very fine job here. Bening has the strong matriarch figure down to a T already (think The Kids Are All Right), but here she finds additional depth for a mother role that is carefree and yet responsible. In another year, she might have been nominated for an Oscar. Gerwig and Fanning each respond to their complex roles with ease, both funny and offbeat. Even young Zumann holds his own against more experienced actors. Mills doesn’t overplay the period detail either, instead placing the film in a less cynical time and only briefly referring to world events outside the family home. As the film draws to a close, there’s a sense that Jamie will make a fine young man. 20th Century Women comes highly recommended. ****

  • emerb

    “20th Century Women” could be viewed as a sort of companion piece to Mike Mill’s last movie, “Beginners”, which paid homage to his late father, Paul. Here, he has been inspired by his relationship with his mother when she was in the prime of her life. Both films focus on how difficult it can be for people to relate to parents, particularly when there is a very large age gap which means that there is little cultural overlap. This movie is a real little gem, a charming autobiographical comedy about parent-child relationships which I found to be big hearted, intriguing and realistic.

    Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a middle aged woman trying to raise her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), by herself in 1979 Santa Barbara, California. Finding herself confused by the task of raising a teenage son, she takes the step of enlisting the help of two younger women. One is Jamie’s best friend, the promiscuous teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), with whom he maintains a platonic if frustrated relationship. The other is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a pink-haired, punk-rocker young photographer who is recovering from cancer and who is Dorothea’s tenant. Jamie is neither thrilled with nor understands the reasoning behind his mother’s plan. He can’t understand why she is always trying to find an older male influence to guide him, she even asks her boarder William (Billy Crudup) for assistance too and he is tolerant and helpful but not
    much use. Jamie is a typical 15-year-old high school student looking for social acceptance at school and struggling with the challenges of growing up. His relationship with his mother has hit a bit of a wall where no amount of coaxing, shouting or attempts at maternal care can solve. Despite this however, Jamie does have genuine concern for his mother, even if they don’t always see eye to eye. Over the course of the film, we are taken on a journey with all of Jamie’s relationships and it’s a special thing watching him develop and mature as he learns much about women and their inherent complexities!

    Annette Bening is the heart and soul of this film and gives one of the best performances I’ve seen in a while (and a career best). Her Dorothea is a fascinating character of contradictions and she has never been better as the free spirited, chain-smoking, Birkenstock-clad lady, an old-school feminist who seems slightly bemused by the sexual revolution and apprehensive about what’s coming next. Despite all her confidence and openness, she reveals a degree of maternal insecurity and is finding it increasingly hard to relate to her son’s generation.

    She is also well supported with two other female performances that capture the insecurities of young womanhood. Abbie, is wonderfully portrayed by Greta Gerwig. She takes her role of mentor very seriously and becomes an important guide for Jamie, taking him into a world of music and art which changes his perspectives. Gerwig uses her delightful, rather scatty and daft persona to portray a character on the search for a meaning and purpose in life and trying to cope with the confusion and pain of a thirty year old who to deal with the aftermath of cervical cancer. Elle Fanning is great as the wild child Julie who cannot relate to her mother and spends all her time at Jamie’s home, often sleeping with him at night just for the emotional intimacy even as she pushes away his sexual advances. Jamie is agog at her wide-eyed openness and admires her confidence. The men in “20th Century Women” are not to be ignored here either. Crudup shines here as the well-meaning, gentle and rather
    sexy mechanic William who makes himself available for fatherly advice (which
    is at times questionable!). Zumann gives a lovely performance too as a sensitive and sensible boy who is confused and bemused by the 20th century women who surround him.

    “20th Century Women” is my favourite of Mills’ movies to date. That’s thanks to his pure talent as a filmmaker, but also to a top notch cast who have marvellously brought these characters to life. By the end of the film, you really feel like you have gotten to know all of them and there are so many memorable scenes, including one of the most awkward and hilarious discussions at a dinner table that I have ever witnessed! I liked the way Mills uses archival photos and voiceover to add continuity to the story and link the past to the present and even the future (as we see at the end). For the most part, the narration comes from Jamie, although all of the other characters contribute. They tell us who they are, where they came from, where they’re going. The dialogue is sharp and witty but never feels scripted. Emotional, warm, emotional and endearing, this small domestic drama is sure to delight audiences of all ages.