Review: 20th Century Women

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Despite not being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, this is one of the best films of the last year!

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20th Century Women is a coming of age comedy-drama by director Mike Mills. Just as Mills has described his last film, Beginners, as a love letter to his father, he has, quite aptly, described 20th Century Women as a love letter to the women in his life. The film follows the lives of 17 year old Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann), his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), their two lodgers: Abigail (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup), and Jamie’s best friend and love interest, Julie (Elle Fanning), in 1979 Santa Barbara. After Jamie suffers a minor accident, Dorothea worries that Jamie is struggling to find his place in the world, and asks Abigail and Julie to help raise him. 20th Century Women is undoubtedly a masterpiece of filmmaking, but if I had one complaint about the film, it’s its title. A title like 20th Century Women would surely turn a number of young men off the idea of seeing this, but as it is a story about a teenage boy, as told by a man, this is surely the target audience!

It’s easy to see why Mills has described the film as both autobiographical and non-autobiographical, as many of the characters in the film, such as Dorothea and Abigail, correspond to women in Mills’ own life. However, you could also see the film as a love letter to the late 1970s, as Mills revels in the time period, showing it as one of massive social change, as it follows the end of the Vietnam War, and is on the eve of the denouement of the Cold War. Over the course of the film, Mills addresses issues such as the rise of gender equality in mainstream society, the crisis of masculinity, and the pitfalls of capitalist culture. Indeed, in an attempt to show what an era of change this time was, part of the film is dedicated President Jimmy Carter’s speech to the American people, in which he urged them to reject the consumerist culture they had become accustomed to. The film’s driving force is a number of monologues that the characters give in narration throughout the film, in which they share their innermost thoughts and fears for the future. Through this we see that the people we meet in life are rarely ever the same on the inside as they are on the surface. Indeed, in one of these narrations, in which Dorothea observes that in the years to come, “kids will stop dreaming about nuclear war, and have nightmares about the weather,” we are given a glimpse of just how much the world has changed over the past forty years.

However, despite the sense of nostalgia that underlines the film, 20th Century Women is principally a coming of age story, documenting the hopes and fears of adolescents as they approach adulthood, and a similar fear parents feel in letting their child grow up. As Dorothea says to Abigail, “You get to see him out in the world as a person, I never will.” The film manages to perfectly capture both the difficulties in becoming an adult, and the concern parents feel observing this evolution in their children, with a lot of this relatability being down to the performances. Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are particularly brilliant as three of the women in Jamie’s life. Bening perfectly captures the crisis her character goes through as she watches her son grow up, and Gerwig is similarly able to convey the complexities her character feels as a cancer survivor who has been given a life she never expected to have.  However, it is perhaps Fanning’s performance that is most phenomenal, as she portrays an emotionally troubled teenager who uses Jamie as her personal councillor, despite his wishes. Fanning has portrayed a number of complex characters over the past year, and with The Neon Demon and Live by Night both having received a mixed reception, it’s nice to see one of her performances getting the acclaim it deserves.

Having said that, it’s a shame that this film hasn’t received more recognition this awards season, as it may very well be one of the best films of this decade, and should be seen as soon as possible!

20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills, is distributed by Entertainment One Films. Certificate 15.

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