20TH CENTURY WOMEN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Mike Mills

Stars: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Alia Shawkat.

The opening night attraction of the recent American Essentials Film Festival, 20th Century Women is the latest film from writer/director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, etc). His previous film was Beginners, which was inspired by the story of his own father, who came out as gay at the age of 75 following a battle with cancer. It starred Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, who won an Oscar for his flamboyant performance. His latest film is a melancholic, semi-autobiographical coming of age tale, and has been inspired by his own adolescence growing up with his chain smoking, progressively minded mother in Santa Barbara in 1979.

Mills’ fictitious counterpart here is 15-year old Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), who lives with his mother Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening, from American Beauty, etc) in a sprawling boarding house that seems to be always under constant renovation. Dorothea believes that Jamie deserves a rounded upbringing, and, worried that she can no longer connect with him, she enlists the help of two females who live in the boarding house. There is the free spirited 26-year-old photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig, from Frances Ha, Mistress America, etc), who introduces Jamie to punk rock, feminist literature and raves, and Jamie’s friend, the sexually experienced and worldly 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) who is in therapy, and with whom Jamie shares a platonic relationship. They give Jamie some important lessons in life and teach him about love, sex, freedom, and heartbreak.

The film follows Jamie’s emotional journey, but it also shows that adults also need to grow up in some ways as well. 20th Century Women is a film about memory, and the impact that the era had on women. It captures the vulnerability and uncertainty of these ordinary characters as they muddle through life. Mills has an obvious warmth for his characters and they are all given credible backstories. There is no obvious plot trajectory here, more a series of subplots and incidents woven throughout the film. The narrative tends to amble along, with lots of detours. There is also a strong streak of gentle humour throughout the film. When characters take a road journey, cinematographer Sean Porter (Green Room, etc) highlights that car in rainbow colours, which lends a surreal touch to the material.

Mills incorporates many of the familiar tropes of the rites of passage genre into the narrative, and gives the meandering material a personal touch and some insights into the pain and confusion of growing up. He deftly charts the changing face of America as it moves into the decade of Reaganomics, a time of great cultural change, when America was at the crossroads. America was on the cusp of a new decade: punk rock, Reagan in the White House, crack and AIDS. Mills and his team of production designers have recreated the look and feel of the era. The soundtrack is also laced with some great punk rock tunes that resonate.

There are great performances from the ensemble cast. In her best role for quite some time Bening is great as Dorothea. She delivers a rounded performance that ranks as one of her best. Young Zumann is a standout in his breakthrough role, and he captures the energetic spirit and sense of independence of his character and brings an affecting innocence to his performance. I have often found Gerwig grating in the past, but here she reins in her usual quirky touches and finds some nuance and subtlety. She delivers a well-rounded performance. Billy Crudup plays William, a handyman working on the house, who also finds his way into Dorothea’s life and bedroom, and he provides a male touch to Jamie’s upbringing.

The title is a little misleading, although the film is something of a poignant love letter to the women who raised Mills and shaped his view on life. It is a fine companion piece to his Beginners. Mills deftly uses a combination of voice over narration, archival footage and historical photographs to weave a nostalgic and reflective spell on the material.

★★★

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