Review: 20th Century Women

Touching talkie takes a thoroughly human look at the personal travails of late-70s America. Rich in heart and soul.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but in writer/director Mike Mills’ bright-hearted 20th Century Women, it takes Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, with a little bit of help from Billy Crudup as a hippy mechanic.

Set in Santa Barbara in the late 70’s, as Jimmy Carter’s America gets down to the arty musings of Talking Heads and the harder punk of Black Flag, the times they are a changing as the President, in a pivotal television address, warns (to very little effect as it turns out, given our hindsight,) that the nation has to turn away from capitalistic excess in favour of community spirit.

Bening, giving a career-best performance, plays 50-something independent spirit and single mum Dorothea (Bening) to Lucas Jade Zumann’s 15-year-old son Jamie. Relatively well adjusted, Jamie nonetheless becomes the focus of Dorothea’s creeping unease. Having grown up in the Great Depression, its shadow seems to have left a mark on her and, as such, she is determined to secure her son’s happiness, ensuring he is as resilient as possible – hence calling in the help of her lodgers. Abbie (Gerwig) is a shock red-haired, feminist text-devouring photographer and handy man William (Crudup) mostly donates repair work on the big old dilapidated house they share instead of rent money.

Also engaged in Jamie’s life lessons are his sexually active 17-year-old friend and neighbour Julie (Fanning), the daughter of a therapist, who climbs scaffolding to his bedroom most nights, though their platonic relationship is mostly about moral support for her own boy troubles, much to his frustration.

Dorothea’s vintage car burning in a supermarket parking lot at the opening of Beginners helmer Mills’ insightful look at the travails we all face in defining who we are is as appropriate a symbol of the hormonal onslaught young adulthood as any, but it also signals a cutting loose of Dorothea, the last cherished artefact of a failed marriage that didn’t produce much to celebrate.

A true ensemble piece, Mills imbues each character with real beating hearts that fire with recognisable passions and doubts. In many respects a quiet film, it nonetheless grips as each protagonist faces their own intimate dramas, from health scares to aborted romances, while Dorothea and Jamie take turns to narrate their destinies, including their own, stretching even beyond the closing credits.

Wordy and witty, 20th Century Women is an inter-textual magnet that draws in everything from Susan Sontag’s On Photography to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, Casablanca to Our Bodies, Ourselves, with the last leading to perhaps the film’s finest moment among many genius sparks as Jamie attempts to sexually enlighten a bully with clitoral stimulation tips and gets exactly what you’d predict in return. Though that highlight has tough competition in Julie’s impromptu communal menstruation soapbox mid-awkward dinner party and in a subtly tragic mother and son bridge built hat burns moments later, as good intention is washed away by truth too cutting.

Channelling the spirit of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, as with that cinematic triumph, this is really about family and whatever shape that may take, chosen or otherwise, and it’s almost as glorious, with everyone putting in their very best, but most of it it’s Bening’s belligerently smoking, strong but self-doubting, sky-high dreaming matriarch in limbo who is the ultimate 20th century woman and what a joy it is to witness her in full flight.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords