20th Century Women is a semi-autobiographical film by writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker). Set in 1979, the film centres on an unconventional family living in a large home in Santa Barbara. Like the transitional time period itself, the house is under renovation, forged and fixed by the characters who reside within it. The residents consist of bohemian matriarch Dorothea (Annette Bening), handyman ex-hippy William (Billy Crudup), radical feminist photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), Dorothea’s 15-year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning). There is little to no narrative that occurs outside of this group of characters, other than backstory and exposition. Each character is dedicated an edited montage of introduction, which is narrated by another central character. We are introduced to them so intimately, through a fixed perspective which links them together.
The crux of the narrative it set around Dorothea’s worry about her son growing up without a father figure. She asks Abbie and Julie to help Jamie to become a “good man”. Abbey indulges Jamie’s love for punk and Talking Heads and gives him feminist literature to read. Julie remains a fierce friend to Jamie with the knowledge that he wants more from her. Yet it is Dorothea’s attempts to forge a way for Jamie’s maturation that pushes him away, keeping him at arm’s length. She is afraid of not knowing the man that he is becoming.
This film is really lovely to look at, taking advantage of its time period whilst at the same time harnessing a sense of familiarity and immediacy. It feels like HD Super 8 film – all the contrast and light exposure without the grainy texture. With so much of the film focusing on perspective, the use of a moving focal point enables us to see the action from many different perspectives. The production design and costuming is perfect, with each bedroom completely matching residing characters. Common areas like the dining room and the kitchen hold objects that seem tangible in their placement by specific characters. Much of the set decoration is between two or three time periods, with a house from the 1900s filled with mod and art deco furniture. The world feels lived in and entirely nostalgic, especially by the film’s close. An absolute highlight of 20th Century Women is the editing by Leslie Jones (The Thin Red Line, The Master). The timing of this film is masterful and gives it a precise edge.
I always maintain that the most important foundations to successful films lie in the intersection between writing and performances. This film perfects those two elements. Each character is beautifully written, and we come to know each one intimately. I’d specifically apply this statement to the character of Julie, a self-aware teenage girl struggles with her newly-found sexual freedom. We have seen this archetype dozens of times in media, with the female idealised by the central male character, only to position her as a goal rather than a fully realised character. Elle Fanning has been trapped in roles such as these previously. 20th Century Women takes that archetype and fundamentally crushes it. Julie embodies complexity and vulnerability whilst challenging Jamie in his love for his perceived “version” of her. None of the characters feel glossed over or archetypal whatsoever. They each feel familiar and relatable, which is especially refreshing with regards to the female characters. The three women are strong, intelligent and entirely dysfunctional – in a way that feels actual and intimate. They are seen through an entirely non-judgemental lens, their complexity unearthed completely.
These characters are imprints of generations stacked on top of each other. The conflict comes from clashing ideologies and willingness to accept and be accepted. These character interactions are demonstrated tremendously by the cast, with Billy Crudup as charming as ever and newcomer Lucas Jade Zuman fantastic as Jamie. But the women of the cast are breathtaking. Greta Gerwig is entirely believable as Abbie, reminding me of so many of my own female friends whilst embodying such volatility in her vulnerability. Elle Fanning as Julie is wonderful, finally in a role which makes use of her immense talent. Lastly, Annette Bening as Dorothy is truly astounding. This is a career-defining role, demanding a life of experience as a woman. She brings a warmth which you feel the absence of when she withdraws her attention. She reminds me of my mother and grandmothers in her will as a parent to do what she can for her son.
I really loved this film. It was a triumph in the utilisation of empathy and perspective. I am so glad to finally see this film receive an Australian release date. Its nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards was unquestioningly deserved. You’ll be missing out if you don’t see this one.