20th century women

review by dara mcwade

It's 1979 in Santa Barbara; Punk is dying, the president is declaring a national crisis of confidence and gender is in flux. This is the environment that director Mike Mills has decided to set his second major feature, and just like 2010's Beginners, it is a deeply personal and autobiographical tale of memory and family, and how the people around us shape who we become.

While Beginners focused on Mills' relationship with his long-closeted father, who became ill shortly after coming out, 20th Century Women turns the clock back 3 decades to paint a picture of his youth, his mother and the other women of his life. While the film may be a fictionalised account of his youth, Mills has created a rich tapestry of characters that feel real, because they are based on real people. Mills has described his own mother as being a Humphrey Bogart type, and watching the film, you can see what he means. Annete Bening is fantastic as Dorothea, a character based on Mills' mother, a multi-faceted and good-humoured woman struggling both with her son getting older, and her own lost place in life. She tells her son that "wondering if you're happy if the fastest way to become depressed", but it's clear that it's a question she's been content to ignore for most of her life. Bening steals the show, her Golden Globe-nominated performance giving the film much of its witty but soft energy.


The plot hook, in as far as there is a plot hook in this often meandering journey through character histories and moments, is Dorothea gathering the women in her son Jamie's (Lucas Jade Zumann) life to create a parenting team. Jamie's older best friend and the object of affections Julie (Elle Fanning) asks early on if you need a man to raise a man. While Julie and late 20's boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) may take a more sensitive and mature groove than most 14 year old boys get, his education process including lessons on heavy feminist literature and clitoral stimulation, the film argues that some of the best men are raised by women.

While Lucas Jade Zumann delivers an admirable performance in his break-out role, this film really belongs to the women who raise him... and Billy Crudup. Crudup plays the house's other boarder, William, a mechanic with a strong moustache and a lover's soul. Crudup plays the role with deep sincerity and emotional honesty. He's a man with an unexpected past and a soft way of smiling.  Gerwig performs the role she is born to play, a red-haired punk who has been sent spiralling out of her dreams of artistic freedom by the cold hand of fate. The character is both a gentle carer and someone ready to rage against the machine or its closest equivalent, and Gerwig makes both sides of her personality feel integral and believable. Elle Fanning stuns as Julie, playing the often-opaque character with enough vulnerability and sensitivity to believe her emotional turmoil.

The film looks like a dream, literally, with soft images and a pastel colour scheme, all soft whites and primary colours. This relaxed style fits the relaxed structure, which often breaks into character backstories narrated by Jamie or Dorothea, and delivers information at a leisurely pace. It's unclear how exactly Julie, Abbie and William fit into Jamie's life until a half hour into the film, but you're not left questioning where they stand with each other. The mystery isn't what is important, but rather how they influence each other as people. Like Beginners, Mills’ non-linear narrative allows the film to explore what exactly these characters mean to each other.

With 20th Century Women Mike Mills has delivered another dreamy-looking glimpse into his past, an equally poignant and hilarious drama that wears it's sincerity on its sleeve. If you have to watch one "unconventional family drama" this year, let this be it.