20th Century Women (2016)

  • Time: 118 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama
  • Director: Mike Mills
  • Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Alia Shawkat


The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.

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  • A touching and textured tribute to his mother and the two older sisters who raised him, writer-director Mike Mills’ third feature 20th Century Women is set during in Santa Barbara, California, during the summer of 1979, a time when the relatively calm culture was about to give way to the excess of the Reagan era. Yet that transition is less the focus of the film than the people who are bridging the shift from the expectations of the lives they’re about to live to the realities of the life they are living.

    “It wasn’t always old, it just got that way all of a sudden,” Dorothea (Annette Bening) says of the family car that catches fire in the opening moments of the film, but she may as well be saying that of herself. A child of the Great Depression, she’s very much a woman of her time – wearing her hair bobbed and outfitted in silk blouses that were the fashion of those times as well as loose-fitting pants and overalls that are a reminder of her scuppered dreams of being an aviatrix like Amelia Earhart – but almost anthropologically fascinated by what dominates modern world.

    Part of her fascination is an attempt to understand the world that her 14-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) insists on navigating without her help. He’s a good kid but, like most teenagers, he believes he knows it all even as he’s in the midst of discovering the unknowns that life has to offer. Concerned that she knows him less and less, Dorothea enlists the help of two women to help guide her son. One is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring photographer recovering from cervical cancer who rents one of the rooms in Dorothea’s constantly under construction house. Another is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s 17-year-old friend and object of affection, who comes into his room at night to sleep next to him but insists on keeping their friendship strictly without benefits.

    Nothing strictly dramatic occurs within the loosely structured narrative, but our understanding of these women as well as William (Billy Crudup), the hippieish handyman always in search of a deep and romantic relationship but useless at the having of it, deepens as Mills and his superb cast of actors flesh out their characters in all their flawed glory. Though the characters are looking forward, the film itself is reflecting back from the future. Thus, we are privy to the fates of each and every character – a gambit that could have been pretentious claptrap but instead an excellent demonstration of Mills’ delicate but firm grasp on his material.

    Every member of the cast is faultless, but Bening is undoubtedly the film’s radiant centerpiece. Warm yet prickly, openminded yet rigid, rueful yet no-nonsense, her Dorothea flies the flag for all the women, 20th century or otherwise, who are pioneers, protectors and inspiration for those around them.

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