20th Century Women is an engrossing period piece that successfully showcases life, culture, and conflicting ideologies of the 1970s.
20th Century Women transports us back to Santa Barbara, California in 1979, where we meet Dorothea (Annette Bening), a 55-year-old single mother who is desperately trying to connect with her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Discovering that she feels inadequate to raise Jamie to become a man, Dorothea recruits the help of tenant/friend Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s slightly older friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to provide guidance for Jamie, as he grows up in the drug and sex-obsessed period of the late 70s.
Written and directed by Mike Mills, 20th Century Women is an engrossing period piece that successfully showcases life, culture, and conflicting ideologies of the 70s. Mills, who gained recognition with 2010’s Beginners, has yet again released an enlightening movie about the human condition. 20th Century Women may not be for people who prefer big-budget movie fare, but it certainly will entice the indie and art house movie crowd.
Like in Beginners, Mills prioritizes character development over plot development in 20th Century Women. Mills provides each central character’s backstory by way of voice-over narration and montages. By doing this, Mills gives us a picture of how past events and actions has affected how characters have changed and matured in their respective lives. Every character from Annette Bening’s Dorothea to Elle Fanning’s Julie are given enough characterization that we, as viewers, learn and care for what happens to them. As mentioned, Mill’s character driven approach may not sit well with viewers who love to see movies with more dramatic action. Admittedly, the film meanders in the second act, as a bunch of scenes show the characters sitting at tables, talking about personal issues, and reflecting on how they’re lives have transpired. These scenes are well-acted, but perhaps the 118-minute film would have been more streamlined if some scenes were cut or made shorter. Nonetheless, viewers who love indie films will marvel at Mill’s film as being a fitting tribute to 1970s culture and life.
Mills and cinematographer Sean Porter successfully convey 1970s California with realistic locations, clothing, cars, and skate ramps. Whether characters are hanging out at parties, skateboarding on ramps or in streets, or playing music, every action feels authentic to the time. Moreover, Mills wisely incorporates discussions among his characters about politics and culture. As Dorothea deals with her insecurity of raising Jamie in an unfamiliar and developing culture, Abbie teaches Jamie about the growing trend of feminism. Watching Dorothea become more uncomfortable with 70s drug and sex culture as well as Abbie’s interest in women’s rights is engaging to watch because these scenes show how their beliefs and views reflect the time in which they grew up.
Performance-wise, all main actors hit the mark. Annette Bening, who portrays Dorothea, gives a great performance as a single mom who is unsure of how she’s going to raise her son. Bening’s performance is amazing, considering that Bening had the hard job to make Dorothea likable in some tough scenes. Independent film star Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) also gives a great performance as Abbie. Gerwig manages to gain sympathy from the audience, as her character deals and reacts with life-changing news. Burgeoning film star Elle Fanning (Maleficent, The Neon Demon) continues to make her mark in Hollywood by delivering a multi-faceted performance as the promiscuous/complex Julie. Actor Billy Crudrup has the least amount of screen time, but he likewise leaves his mark as the likable handyman William. Newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, who plays Jamie, is admittedly given a hard job to convey Jamie’s insecurities and frustrations, but he certainly handles every scene with skill and ease—there’s no doubt he’s going to make a name for himself in Hollywood.
20th Century Women succeeds as a character-drama, delivering dramatic and comedic moments as well as sharp social commentary. If you’re a fan of films that prioritize character over plot, you will enjoy this film. I highly recommend all independent movie lovers to watch this film. You won’t regret it!
Rating: 4.5 out of 5