Review: 20th Century Women

Mike Mills transports audiences back to a 1979 Santa Barbara complete with its waning hippie culture, the final death throes of punk and the rise of female identity in this beautifully acted and poignant film.

Like in Mill’s 2010 film BEGINNERS, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is peppered with carefully imposed vignettes of pop culture photographs. These, combined with excerpts lifted from books and speeches from the likes of Jimmy Carter and Judy Blume, immerse the audience in the lives of the characters. Although 20TH CENTURY WOMEN may seem sparse in its drama, it still packs one heck of a punch with standout performances and a realistic portrayal of family and identity in a time of change.

Annette Bening plays Dorothea, the strong-minded and straight talking mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea enlists the help of her lodger, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning), in raising her son to become a moral, well-rounded individual. She soon realises, though, that maybe entrusting Jamie’s future self to two young women who have yet to find their own paths may not have been the best idea. Of course, the opposite is soon realised as the girls give Jamie the emotional tools he needs to connect with his mother.

There is a disconnect between Jamie and Dorothea, a gap that they both try to bridge throughout. Both characters never really communicate in a genuine way until the end of the film, where they evolve and begin to understand each other and in some ways, accept that they never really will. The characters have a past, portrayed through cleverly positioned and detailed voice-overs; the audience are experiencing their present and again through the art of voice-over, become part of their future. The film may end in 1979 but viewers are given enough information to take them through to the year 2000. The motif of a future rushing towards them is carried through the film in forms of fast-paced vignettes and beautifully trippy, time-lapsed driving sequences.

There is a sense of the characters wanting to escape reality: Julie and Abbie do this through fantasy and role-play, which serves as a way for them to open up and explore who they are, but also to protect themselves. Dorothea escapes confronting her own problems by opening her home to everyone else, including shampoo-making mechanic William (Billy Crudup) as well as immersing herself in constant home improvements. Although the film’s central theme is one of family and relationships, it is also a film about nostalgia, of how memories serve as filters, making the past beautiful. Mills creates an authentic 1979 with the film’s subtle fashion choices and soundtrack, flitting between the likes of Talking Heads and Louis Armstrong without it becoming too overpowering. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is an original and witty coming-of-age film, complete with zingy one-liners courtesy of Bening. It perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the time, a country in the midst of change, soon to make way for Reagan and MTV, and the uncertain limbo of the late 70s and early 80s – reflected in the generation gap between Dorothea and Jamie that neither of them are quite sure how to handle. With Mills already championing a unique style of realistic filmmaking and storytelling, what comes next from him is cause for much anticipation.

Originally featured on Take One 


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