20th Century Women

A Love Letter to Women from Director Mike Mills


Writer-director Mike Mills’ follow-up to his 2011 Golden Hitchaboo-winning Beginners, 20th Century Women centers on a brief moment in time, several uniquely different women, and the young man they are collectively ‘raising.’  Set in 1979 in Santa Barbara, single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) is raising her teenage son Jamie (played by newcomer Lucas Zumann) while running a boarding house out of her rundown family home.  20th Century Women is a reflection on history, of profoundly American counter culture, and the impact it had on people.

Mills injects rich three-dimensional life into each of his characters; each with their own wants, needs, fears, loves, history.  Mills’ casting is near faultless, each actor and actress adopting their roles exactingly.  Annette Bening is strong as usual as the lead Dorothea; and the supporting cast is equally as capable, with Elle Fanning playing Jamie’s older friend/unrequited love interest Julie, and Billy Crudup as William; a spirit child a few years past his prime.

The most impressive showing comes from indie-favorite Greta Gerwig as Abbie; a mid-twenties bohemian photographer facing struggles far heavier than she is ready for so early in life.  Gerwig plays Abbie equal parts sweet and tough, and totally exposed; and in doing so, delivers the film’s most potent voice.  Her best scene comes opposite Crudup’s William as they entertain the idea of some casual physical relations.  Abbie requests some role-playing from William; who cautiously humors her request.  The moment is funny and goofy; with Gerwig allowing herself to show vulnerability, and is completely charming in the process.

Mills makes use of double narrators within the film; a unique layer to 20th Century Women‘s screenplay.  Having the internal perspective from both Bening’s Dorothea and Zumann’s Jamie allows the audience to see the blindspots that both characters have for themselves.  While Dorothea is narrating her journey in the film, she exposes features in Jamie that he might not see in himself, or perhaps doesn’t want to acknowledge; while ignoring her own fragility. Through Jamie’s narration, he fills in the gaps from Dorothea, and brings differing context to form a comprehensive portrait of their lives.

A rewarding screenwriting tool are flashes of each character’s distant future.  While 20th Century Women is limited to the summer months of 1979 Santa Barbara, Mills uses the final minutes to provide insight into the eventualities of each character through short bursts in narrative.  This originality in storytelling, veering far away from the film’s time and setting, reminds audiences that the characters’ lives are much bigger than the few months we are watching, and shows how the events in the film lead to (or in some cases contradict) each character’s eventual outcome.

Mills brings costume designer Jennifer Johnson back after their first collaboration (Beginners); and she brings a naturalness to the wardrobe design that beckons back to our most nostalgic memories of the 1970s. Coupled with the visual design by production lead Chris Jones; 20th Century Women is a wistful recreation of beachy 1970s Santa Barbara.

20th Century Women is not without its flaws.  Mills re-uses the cultural ‘photo/narration’ technique as he used in Beginners, but with less effect. While in Beginners, it was used to spotlight differences between generations; this technique doesn’t hit the same mark here, and feels worn.  In terms of story, this film hinges on the viewers ability to empathize with Jamie; and Zumann is not up to the task. Dwarfed by his castmates throughout, Zumann seems confused by the complexity that Mills requires from the role.

Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women focuses itself within a limited window of time in the late 1970s, in a Southern California undergoing culture-clash told through Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie, Julie, and William.  As imperfect as the story is, Mills and his cast deliver a thoughtful ode to the women that occupy our lives.


Scores:

  • Screenwriting: 8/10 – Contemplative without ever becoming cornball-y
  • Acting: 7/10 – Gerwig is fantastic, while lead actor Zumann is in over his head
  • Directing: 6/10 – No faults but nothing exceptional; some directing choices feel overused
  • Production/Costume: 9/10 – Viewers inhabit 1970s SoCal through the expert choices of the production team

Overall:

7/10, With mostly favorable performances, and a strong script from Mike Mills; 20th Century Women is a pleasant, if imperfect, ode to the fairer sex.

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