20th Century Women

Studio: A24
Directed by Mike Mills

Jan 03, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Dorothea is a fifty-five-year-old single mother raising her fifteen-year-old son, Jamie. They live in a sprawling old house in Santa Barbara that’s in a constant state of renovation. Dorothea supplements her income by taking on two boarders, a twentysomething photographer named Abbie and a thirtysomething ex-hippie turned handyman named William. Over the summer of 1979, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Jamie’s best friend Julie in helping her reconnect with her son after feeling that their relationship is growing more distant.

Writer/director Mike Mills attracted much acclaim for his 2010 feature Beginners, a semi-autobiographical film about a young man discovering that his dying father is gay. 20th Century Women feels similarly autobiographical; Jamie is roughly the same age Mills would have been in 1979, living in the same area of California. Dorothea even has the same day job as Mills’ actual mother. Both films walk the fine line between drama and comedy that appears to be difficult for most, moving without being sappy, funny without being corny. Mills’ style reflects this balance, weaving together naturalistic performances and cinematography with flashes of documentary footage from the era. He even finds room for the cutesy, Wes Anderson-style trick of listing items while showing them isolated against a blank background, although Mills has a logical reason for using the technique.

After a thirty-year career and four Oscar nominations, Annette Bening seems to have found her magnum opus in the form of Dorothea. In an era where quality parts for women over forty who aren’t Meryl Streep are a rarity, Mills and Bening have crafted a character that feels fully formed and believably complex. Dorothea feels like an old family friend, someone you’ve known for years. Rounding out the trio of titular characters are Greta Gerwig as Abbie and Elle Fanning as Julie. Abbie is as hip as any of Gerwig’s usual characters, a second-wave feminist punk rocker, but Gerwig dials down her typical manic pixie exuberance, keeping Abbie more subdued and internal to counterbalance Dorothea’s drive and zeal. As Julie, Fanning continues her year of tackling ‘adult’ roles, although the scenes pitting her against Bening provide some of the biggest laughs in the film.

The weakest link in the cast is Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, although that’s a bit unfair as he’s more inexperienced than outright ineffective. The film itself remains winkingly aware that a film ostensibly about the female experience still revolves around a male character. Jamie even jokingly quips “I’m not all men” at one point. Although the film certainly has gender dynamics on its mind, Mills’ biggest thematic concern seems to be the way time divides us from the people we love; how even the narrowest of age gaps can widen into huge divides and how difficult and rewarding it can be to bridge those gaps and form stronger relationships.

Author rating: 8/10

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