20th Century Women is directed and written by the talented Mike Mills and tells the story of a close-knit group of characters in 1979 San Bernardino, with a special focus on a 15-year-old pubescent boy and his mother as they come to terms with the changing nature of their relationship.
While the plot of the movie is rather thin, the picture itself is a witty, charming, and often times hilarious look at matters of identity, family, and life. With help from great acting from the core group of five actors, a fantastically written script, and inspired musical selections from Roger Neill (King of the Hill, Mozart from the Jungle), director Mike Mills is able to deliver a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking film.
20th Century Women has positives aplenty going for it, not least of all the acting. Annette Bening (Dorothea), and Lucas Jade Zumann (Jamie) excel as the two lead characters as a mother and son whose relationship together is in a state of flux. Bening, in particular, is the star of the film as Dorothea, a woman who struggles to come to terms with not only her son changing, but also with the world around her in a decade dominated by the rise of punk music.
Elsewhere, Billy Crudup is hilarious as William, an eccentric yet vulnerable “hippy”. On top of that, Ellie Fanning (Julia), and Greta Gerwig (Abbie) both impress asa young woman rebelling against her home life and a woman finding her place in the world, respectively.
What impresses more than just the individual performances is the family dynamic between the five characters and their interactions come across as so natural due to the chemistry between the five.
The acting is far from the only thing going for the film. The musical choices, in particular, are terrific. Roger Neill utilises punk music throughout the film, which accentuates the focus on how Annette Bening’s character struggles to comprehend the changes in musical culture compared to when she was younger. The musical choices are also connected with the script as the plot details the rivalry between the fandom of different punk bands.
All of this adds to the feel of the 1970s which is created by the film. Add to that the great cinematography from Seán Porter (The Trust, Green Room), and you have a film that truly feels like it belongs to the decade it is depicting.
More than any of this, and what makes this film as good as it is, is the quality of the script. Despite dealing with serious issues such as identity and family, the use of on-point humour, and clever dialogue between each of the characters, makes the film incredibly enjoyable to watch. In particular, there is a sex scene at one point of the film which is hilariously awkward, and the dialogue between several of the characters the next morning at breakfast is equally funny.
Unfortunately, 20th Century Women is not without its problems. It relies on a nostalgia factor on a few occasions which could take the viewer out of the film, although, for this writer, it didn’t feel too forced or detrimental to the overall effect of the film.
The other problem that the film encounters is that it doesn’t really tie off Jamie’s story arc as much as the other characters’. His entire arc is centred around him going through puberty and struggling to discover what it takes to ‘be a man’. That arc is not really rounded off well enough. Now, that may be an intentional choice on behalf of Mills as a way of saying that there is no true way to ‘be a man’. However, until this is explicitly stated, the lack of closure when it comes to Jamie’s arc will be the most notable flaw in 20th Century Women.
Overall, 20th Century Women is an exceptionally written, and terrifically acted feature with music to match. Not only does It earn its Golden Globe nomination, but it also enshrines Mike Mills as one-to-watch as a director.