20th Century Women is a slow-burning dramedy about humans of Santa Barbara. Or put that another way, a pseudo-family of five individuals living amidst the social and cultural changes taking place in America in 1979.
This semi-autobiographical film by writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners) reads like a love letter to his mother.
Annette Bening stars as Dorothea and puts in a fine, emotional and fragile performance as an independent woman and the single mother of a teenage boy named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).
Dorothea feels out of touch with the world – she has difficulty understanding punk music and some aspects of second-wave feminism – so she enlists her boarders to help raise her boy so that he may grow up and become a well-rounded individual.
A photography student with a Ziggy Stardust-coloured hairstyle named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is one such helper. She is quirky and artistic, while William (Billy Crudup) is a sensitive handyman who is a hit with the ladies in the bedroom but can’t deal with them after the fact. Elle Fanning plays the slightly troubled Julie, Jamie’s older and worldlier friend and confidante.
The lives of these individuals are quietly observed in separate vignettes. The plot is a tad thin, but the overall story is told from their different perspectives and the characters share narration and voiceover duties.
This nuanced and warm film is beautifully shot, with great performances and an excellent soundtrack that features Talking Heads and Black Flag, among others. Archive videos are also included, helping give context to the character’s worlds. They also lend an air of authenticity to this film and its depiction of life’s fleeting moments.
20th Century Women examines the idea of motherhood, friendship and family. It is rich with the ebb and flow of life, and certain quiet moments in the specific lives of a group of ordinary people. It’s also proof positive that it takes a village to raise a child or a teenager.
Originally published in print copy of The Brag on 31 May 2017.
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