20th Century Women – movie review

A melancholic coming-of-age drama, there is much to enjoy from 20th Century Women.

The film is set in Santa Barbara in the summer of 1979. Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s, raising her adolescent son, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), at a time of cultural change and rebellion. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie (Greta Gerwig – Jackie), a free-spirited artist living as a boarder in her home and Julie (Elle Fanning – Maleficent), a headstrong teenage neighbour – in his upbringing. Also present is William (Billy Crudup – Spotlight), a handyman who is renovating Dorothea’s house and becoming a fixture within it.

In short, you have three remarkable women – each from a different era of the 20th century – coming together to help teach a teenage boy about life and love, sex and freedom.

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners) 20th Century Women takes a humorous and heartfelt look at how we figure out who we are and the many ways we create families.

Mills describes it as “an elegy for a time and an innocence we can never return to”. The movie is equally a love letter to Mills’ mother and to the women who raised him. Mills says: “In a sense, this is the story of the Greatest Generation meeting Generation X – my mom being born in the 20’s and me from the late 60’s. On one level, the film is a love story between a mother and son, a love story that is very deep and unique, yet may never bring them the solidity they both yearn. The film tries to capture those transient moments where you feel true connection with a loved one.”

The strength of the movie comes from the carefully drawn characters and the way they are played – with naturalism. Jamie’s wide-eyed innocence and responsiveness is heartwarming and affecting. He is the glue that binds the piece together, around whom events evolve.

Dorothea – the libertarian mother – is wistful and warm-hearted. Julie, Abbie and William are still finding their respective paths in life. It is the deep and meaningful conversations and experiences Julie and Abbie have with Jamie that formed such a large part of the pleasure I derived from this picture. Sure, they bumbled and stumbled around and while they were doing so life – in all its infinite glory and confusion – ticked over the days.

But then that is what I took away from 20th Century Women – a sense of liberation from the fact that there isn’t any grand plan. Rather, it is the little moments that make the journey so meaningful. Rated M, 20th Century Women scores an 8.5 out of 10.

Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Annette Benning, Elle Fanning
Release Date: 1 June 2017
Rating: M

Alex First

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