Film Reviews

20th Century Women (2016)


Starring: Annette Benning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup

Director: Mike Mills

Southern California in 1979, Jamie (Zumann) is a teenager whose mother (Benning) becomes worried about him not having a father influence, and enlists his best friend (Fanning), their cancer recovering artist lodger (Gerwig) to help him understand life. Along for the ride is their ex-hippy housemate William (Crudup).

I remember reading somewhere that this film has a somewhat biographical basis, but I can’t seem to find where I read it, so that may not be true. But this film has a very real, down to earth feel to it, and a sense of warmth and humour that I really loved. Each character is explored and created so well in this film that you fall in love with all of them. They’re each struggling to live authentic lives, to get it right, but like all people, they only know so much and make mistakes.

Benning is perhaps the heart of this film as Dorothea, Jamie’s mother who had him late in life and wants to do what’s right for him, even though that’s often quite unconventional. Jamie is essentially raised by women, which sometimes makes him an outsider out in the world, but also makes him an interesting character to watch, as his influences are so unusual and he’s a really nice kid. His best friend Julie is quite funny as a girl whose mother is a counsellor and who sneaks through his window at night to sleep over, though they don’t have sex. She blurts out things in a way that I found hilarious, and she’s so earnest but so young, hating her mother’s pushing psychology on her and yet using the techniques she’s learned from her.

Gerwig as a young woman recovering from cervical cancer is really lovable too. She’s part grit and strength, and part emotional confusion, and she takes her role of being asked to take Jamie under her wing quite seriously, which has some funny consequences.

I also really liked William, the last member of the household, who works to help rebuild the house, and who used to live in a commune, but who fits so well into the philosophical and political conversations of the house. He’s such a kind, lost soul.

I actually didn’t expect to enjoy this film as much as I did. It’s a drama that explores unconventional family, relationships, health, coming of age, politics and social change, which could be very dry, preachy or smarmy, but it’s a lovely story that feels written from the heart as a love letter to mother who gave so much and who may have not gotten everything right. It’s beautifully shot, with that kind of golden glow that for me really speaks of the late 70’s, and is quite even though it takes in a few characters and different aspects of life. It’s a film with heart and humour. Highly recommended.

See It If: you like unconventional dramas, this is really enjoyable stuff.


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