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20th Century Women

  • Genres: Comedy | Drama
  • Director:  Mike Mills
  • Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup
  • Runtime: 118 mins.
  • Distributor: Entertainment One Films
  • Rating Notes: Sexual references, coarse language, drug use and nudity
  • IMdB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4385888/
  • Reviewed in June 2017

This American film borrows from the Director’s (Mike Mills) own childhood, and is semi-autobiographical. It tells the coming-of-age story of a boy, his mother, and two other women who were intimately involved in bringing him up in California, USA, in the late 1970s. It was nominated in the 2017 awards season for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay.

Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a moody 15-yr. old high school student who lives with his chain-smoking mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) in Santa Barbara. His non-conformist mother is trying to recover from a broken marriage, and she finds great difficulty in relating to him positively.

The movie is essentially about the struggles a mother experiences in raising a son who is searching erratically for an identity, and who is surrounded by three women living an open, bohemian life-style. Dorothea can’t establish the bonding with Jamie she wants, so she asks help from two other women who frequent the boarding house she runs. One is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is trapped by sickness and by nature in a world of conflict, and the other is Julie (Elle Fanning), who (almost successfully) resists Jamie’s urging to be intimate with him, because of fears it will wreck her friendship with him. William (Billy Crudup) slips into each of their lives, and Julie slips into Jamie’s bed at night just to have talks with him, ignorant that Jamie loves her.

This is a heavily introspective and personal movie. Dorothea asks Julie and Abbie to help Jamie find his identity by suggesting to them that they share their lives with him. Abbie responds, for instance, by taking Jamie to punk clubs and giving him “hard-core feminist literature” to read. In this movie, lots of things happen as people converse with each other. In painful and private detail, it explores the challenges and conflicts of parenthood and the trials of passing from adolescence to young male adulthood. The women’s experiences affect Jamie’s life. He is a difficult teenager, but we know that the three women are important to him. Overall, the film has a strongly therapeutic feel to it, and it depicts life shared by three troubled women, and one troubled youth, in the late 70’s in the US, which was a time of great political and social unrest. Each is searching for meaning.

The characters in this film are impressively drawn. No one is weak in the acting line-up, and Annette Bening is remarkable as Dorothea Fields. She desperately wants Jamie to be “a good man”, but has no idea how to achieve her goal. In subtle fashion, she pinpoints the loneliness of single motherhood, and the resilience of someone who knows she has to cope, come what may.

This is a warm film that shines light on struggling people. The acting is uniformly excellent, and the film’s scripting is sharp and amazingly spontaneous. Paradoxical reflections about life occur throughout the film. Dorothea, for instance, tells Jamie that being happy “is a great shortcut to being depressed”. This is a movie in which the plot-line is weak, but the enjoyment it engenders stems from viewers’ likely understanding of the limits of parental frustration and anxiety. Dorothea is a person, who, somewhat unadvisedly, picks “the best solution at the time”.

There is hope at the end of the line in this film, though it exposes a multitude of issues without resolving them. In a highly personal way it forces us to contemplate the complexity of life. There are lessons for Jamie, but also for Dorothea: he must stop behaving recklessly to grow up, and she knows she must let the son, whom she loves so much, eventually go.

This poignant and eccentric film won’t be to everyone’s liking with its easy-going intimacy and wandering style, but it attests hope in life ahead in a very original way.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting


Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting


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