Film Review: 20th Century Women
20th Century Women (2016), Director Mike Mills
By Belle McIntyre
The authenticity and intimacy of this randomly eccentric assemblage of characters who perform like a jazz ensemble, insofar as they each get their solo moments to be revealed as distinct individuals within the quirky quasi-family, makes infinite sense when one realizes that this is an autobiographical film. Based on Mike Mills’ own life as a 15 year old being raised by his single mom, Dorothea (Annette Bening) in 1979 Santa Barbara, Jamie is winningly portrayed by first time actor, Lucas Jade Sumann.
Jamie and Dorothea live in a charming, rambling quasi-decrepit Victorian house which seems to be on life support - every time one thing is fixed another thing breaks down. They share the house with two lodgers, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup) who are both refugees from their previous lives and seemingly trying to figure out a new way forward. Abbie is a punk photographer with spiked red hair who has fled from her former life in New York, an overbearing mother, and her cancer recovery. William has recently escaped from a new age spiritual cult which has left him unmoored and uncertain. He occupies and justifies himself with almost constant renovations on the house which also takes care of his rent.
Thematically, one could say they are all trying to find their way forward. Jamie, in the throws of adolescence, is being vicariously schooled about sex by his older best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually active 17 year old who sneaks in through his window to sleep in his bed. And Dorothea is just trying to raise Jamie to be a good man with no man around to help her. To that end she enlists the aid of the closest thing she has to a dysfunctional family - all of the above mentioned. In the meantime, she realizes she needs to re-examine her own life and there are some wonderful moments of self-awareness as she learns about new music, dancing, sex and dating. Jamie’s sexual instructions range from first hand information from Julie and feminist texts from Abbie. Sounds well-rounded to me.
The period details are perfectly represented in the clothing, cars, the music and the language. There is an elegiac quality to the story as it is being told to us by Jamie, the adult, who imbues all of the characters with endearing qualities, even as they are revealed as all too human. The direction feels completely naturalistic. The characters and the house are seen through a lens filtered with love and affection. It totally worked for me. I loved it.