’20th Century Women’ MOVIE REVIEW: Great Performances in Mike Mills’ Ode to Youth & Family

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Writer / director Mike Mills follows up the wonderful Beginners with 20th Century Women, a semi-autobiographical drama/comedy that centres on the relationship between single parent Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Set in California in 1979, Dorothea and Jamie live in a large, mouldering old house with tenants Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). Dorothea enlists Abbie and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help raise him in areas where she, as his mother, cannot make a connection. We follow this unconventional family through a character rather than plot-driven narrative.

Where Beginners’ focus was the father/son relationship, 20th Century Women deals with a mother/son dynamic. Benning is fantastic as Dorothea, strong and capable, yet still struggling with redefined relationship boundaries as her son grows up into his own person. She is ably matched by both Crudup as handyman / borderline hippie William and Fanning’s surly turn as Julie. Zumann is very likeable as Jamie, striking the right balance by being neither too earnest nor too obnoxious, and Gerwig channels Abbie’s fierce creativity and independence to a T. The acting is first rate.

Structurally, 20th Century Women operates with an unusual past/future tense narration and is stitched together in a series of mini biographies, each focussing on a different character. It works well for the most part, although since there isn’t really a framework for when we delve into the biogs, it does tend to feel a little loose at times.

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With the emphasis on character over plot, 20th Century Women is not pushing you toward some inevitable dénouement. Instead it meanders through its run time like a lazy afternoon stroll, letting you get to know these people and become invested in their lives. The best moments in this amusing and thoughtful movie invariably stem from Dorothea’s attempts to understand her teenage son. The sequence where she and William try to dissect Black Flag classic “Nervous Breakdown” is particularly amusing. With the best will in the world, they can’t fathom its appeal, settling instead on dancing around the room to Talking Heads, which is much more their speed.

It’s not without the odd misstep, however. We get a couple of clichéd emotional moments, with the soundtrack trowelling it on a bit, and FYI, punk rock did not end with the Regan era (in point of fact, it became more urgent and more vital). However, this is just nitpicking when we get right down to it, because there’s very little else to fault.

While it won’t leave you high in the clouds like Beginners did, it is nevertheless engrossing and watchable. At its best, 20th Century Women brings to mind the work of Richard Linklater or Noah Baumbach, and while it’s not quite up there with the likes of Boyhood or The Squid and the Whale, it certainly keeps good company with them and works very well in its own right. Anyone with a hankering to spend time with rich, character-based fare will likely find much to enjoy in Mike Mills’ affirming ode to youth and family.