Film Review: 20th CENTURY WOMEN (USA 2016)

20th_century_women_poster.jpgDirector: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Stars: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig

Review by Gilbert Seah

Mike Mills hit it big with his coming out movie BEGINNERS based on his father who came out of the closet at the age of 75. Mills continues his personal films with 20th CENTURY WOMEN based on his upbringing by both his mother and her sister. The film has clout since, it is based on his life. This is a heartfelt feature.

The story is set in 1979, Santa Barbara, California. Single mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning) seeks the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to raise her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Abbie and Julie rent the rooms upstairs of Dorothea’s house.

Despite the film title, 20the CENTURY WOMEN is not solely about women. It is also about a boy being brought up by three women, only because the mother deems she needs help in his upbringing. So, the film should cater to a male audience though the ads and trailer do not make this point known. It is quite clear where the film is leading. Not only is the boy learning from the women, but the women are slowly influenced by the boy – by the boy’s reactions and deeds.

Mills demonstrates that minimal dialogue can also be used to highlight the drama in a confrontation scene. This is evident in the one where the boys argues with his mother after she chastises him on the ‘choking stinge’. The boy just walks away. The tactic of not using lengthy flowery arguments or screaming matches heighten the credibility of the story.
Mill’s film emphasizes details the characters indulge in that help the audience understand them. Dorothea smokes like a chimney – because it is stylish. But she smokes Salem menthols believing the harm is reduced. Julie sleeps with Jamie, sneaking into this room each night, but there do not indulge in sex.

A lot of effort seems to be put into the hairdo of the characters. Jamie and his mother have very curly hair while Abbie and daughter Julie noticeably straight hair. Abbie’s red hair symbolizes her desire to be different as she is.

The film is put into perspective by titles as well as Jamie’s voiceover. Still, one wonders where the film is leading to, and whether there is some hidden message.

Annette Bening shines in her role as the unsure mother. I am not really a Bening fan as she usually undertakes roles of unlikeable women like in AMERICAN BEAUTY and RUNNING WITH SCISSORS. But this sympathetic role suits her. Elle Fanning has been taking roles of and doing well with weird characters lately (LIVE BY NIGHT and THE NEON DEMON) and her role in this film will add to the list.

It would be interesting to see what kind of film Mills will be involved with next – after he has used up all the stories in his family and personal life.


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