Saturday 7 July 2018

Movie Review: 20th Century Women (2016)

A coming of age drama, 20th Century Women is a sincere slice of life, capturing a time and place in the interlaced lives of five people.

It's 1979, in Santa Barbara, California. Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) is 15 years old, transitioning from boyhood to adulthood. His divorced and progressive mom Dorothea (Annette Bening) runs a rooming house, and is worried she may not be able to properly guide Jamie on her own. The only adult male presence in the house is William (Billy Crudup), a tenant and handyman helping with home renovations. Dorothea turns to another tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie's long-term friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and asks them to be more involved in Jamie's life.

Abbie is a free spirited aspiring photographer dealing with the aftermath of treatment for cervical cancer while embarking on a relationship with William. Julie often platonically sleeps with Jamie, and wants to remain close friends with him although she is sexually active with others. Julie and Abbie do engage more with Jamie, introducing him to the punk music scene, feminism and female sexuality issues, and Dorothea starts to regret what she asked for.

Directed and written by Mike Mills based partially on his experiences during adolescence, 20th Century Women is an often fascinating look at growing up in a perfectly imperfect environment. Capturing the awkward era 10 years on from the end of the 1960s, with Dorothea's hippie generation well and truly disillusioned and dealing with the wreckage of  broken relationships and life's unmet expectations, the film plays out against a backdrop of President Jimmy Carter lamenting a trend towards selfish narcissism, the punk music movement tearing itself apart three years after birth, and the ideals of feminism clumsily starting to seep into mainstream pragmatism.

Mills clearly intended the film as a salute to his mother, and as brought to life by a sparkling Annette Bening, Dorothea is a fascinating woman. Always well-meaning and trying to combine natural parental anxieties with a genuinely liberal approach and a willingness to move along with the times, she acknowledges her shortcomings and turns to others for help, although the consequences are not what she expected.

And guidance for her son, if that's what it is, comes from two other women who help make the film a uniquely character-rich experience. Abbie is simultaneously sad and lively, Julie is brooding and precocious, and they both represent women who came of age in the 1970s. They are benefitting from a new world affording them independence, sexual liberation, and career opportunities, but anyway struggling with home, health and relationship issues while trying to decipher the much more chaotic societal signposts. Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are both perfectly cast and with Bening create a triumphant triangle of talent around the willing Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie.

Billy Crudup is not as fortunate, the character of William somewhat underwritten as Mills focuses on the female influences. And somewhat understandably, the film rather peters out in its final chapter.

With multiple narrators providing various perspectives, and with subtle use of humour, flashbacks, and brief flash forwards, 20th Century Women is an eloquent look back at how the future is shaped, warts and all.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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