20th Century Women, Still a Force to be Reckoned with in the 21st Century

Director: Mike Mills Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup Running Time: 119 minutes


What does it mean to be a man? What does it take to become one? How do you ensure you are a good one?

These are questions at the heart of Mike Mills’ latest film, 20th Century Women. Now, you may notice a disconnect there between the title and the message. This movie is a lot more than your typical coming of age story for our young male protagonist, Jamie (Zumann). The film centres on an unconventional household in California in the late 70s, bustling with a gathered family of resilient women. This film moves more like an experience than a solid three act piece. We spend time with these characters and see what they’re up to, basically. The biggest story arc throughout is that single mother Dorothea (Bening) wants her son Jamie to learn what it is to be a man and so she enlists the help of her lodger Abbie (Gerwig) and Jamie’s friend Julie (Fanning). These modern women help him tackle and traverse what it means to be a man in the twentieth century. As you could guess, they all have different ideological beliefs about society, men and women.

We are introduced to Jamie and the family’s immovable matriarch, Dorothea, in the striking opening sequence. I’ll be honest, I was not sure what to expect from this film but that first five minutes sold me. It establishes both setting, character and feeling in such a short space of time. Dorothea is an intriguing woman, to say the least. What other woman invites the fire fighters over for dinner following an explosion? At their home is a collection of characters you just want to get to know. There is Abbie, a photographer who rents a room, William (Crudup) a handyman also renting, and Julie who is Jamie’s confusing and troubled best friend.

The ensemble cast were all so strong and believable. The characters felt real to me, even those painted to be exaggerations. One of these is William, whom Mills uses to help us get past that ‘awkward 70s hippy vibe’ by just giving him all the super spiritual lines that other characters laugh at. This period is often difficult to portray because today it is viewed as being all free love and no haircuts. It’s a plus that is was Almost Famous’ Billy Crudup in this role, proving that he is most likely a time traveller from 1976. Another character that helps depict the specific timestamp is Abbie. I want to hang out with Abbie, for real. Abbie is played by Greta Gerwig who I have never had the pleasure of seeing before but now feel the need to see Jackie even just to see her again. She is incredible. Abbie represents art, freedom and feminism – all themes that flow throughout the film. She introduces Jamie to music – the soundtrack is a wicked mix of Talking Heads, Black Flag, Siouxsie Sioux, The Clash and more. Julie has a difficult home life and an even more difficult social life. She is a lost but brazen young woman and, clearly, the object of Jamie’s unreturned desires. Fanning was perfect casting as a brooding but ethereal 70’s beauty, akin to Michelle Pfeiffer or Faye Dunaway. Bening, as always, is brilliant. There’s so much I could go into about her character but you’re better off seeing it with a friend and getting a good cup of coffee after.

Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl was the closest film that come to mind with which to compare this film. There are distinct differences but both are a story of discovery and mistakes in America in the 70s. They also share a slightly surreal tone. This comes up in places throughout 20th Century Women but to explain it would be a bit spoiler-y so you’ll just have to see it for yourself. It is something used more towards the end and is the only flaw I found with the film, personally. I did not like the ending – not how it ended story-wise but the way it was done. It is by no means a major complaint though and the rest of the movie is incredibly heartfelt and funny.

As with most tales of blossoming, it is hard to pin down an exact genre, so dramedy will have to suffice. Most of my favourite moments on either drastic end of that spectrum comes from Gerwig, the ‘menstruation’ scene being a particular favourite. That alone was worth the two Golden Globe nominations it received. Zumann does a brilliant job handling hilarious lines with a total deadpan delivery. His presence is so refreshing and he comes across natural and effortless. Mills has said that this is a semi-autobiographical story, which may have helped to ground Zumann in his performance. The whole cast shines, and with a superb script in their arsenal, created an enjoyable and thoughtful film.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

20th Century Women is in Irish cinemas from February 10th.

About Sarah Elliott

Sarah is a horror fiend and spoop hound who doesn't quite know her own limits. She enjoys Netflix binges, a good podcast and long walks on the beach - no, really.

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