20th Century Women - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

‘20th Century Women’ carries us on a personal, nostalgic journey


Written/directed by: Mike Mills

Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and Lucas Jade Zumann


“20th Century Women” – In 2011, writer/director Mike Mills offered a heartfelt, personal tale about his relationship with his father in “Beginners”, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Mills’ parents were married for over 40 years, but when his mother died, his father – in his 70s – declared that he was gay the entire time that they were married. 


Mills, who is trained as a graphic designer, brought his unique filmmaking perspective to the movie, by creating a - sometimes - dreamlike experience.  The picture’s nonlinear timeline grants us continual peeks into their relationship, while Mills infuses analogies with history’s effect on romantic relationships, along with wonderfully quirky imagery and oodles of meaningful still photos.  After watching the film, one can truly capture a sense of his dad, which sinks in via cinematic osmosis.


Mills follows up his memorable portrait of his father by delivering “20th Century Women”, which is an equally memorable portrait of his mother, played by Annette Bening. 


Although Mills grew up with two sisters and his parents were married for over 40 years (as previously stated), in this film, Bening plays a single mom to a teenage boy named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979 Santa Barbara, the time and place that Mills also grew up. 


Dorothea (Bening) is a non-conventional mom. 


She was raised during the Great Depression, and Jamie feels that his mom never gave up her communal spirit, in which neighbors and friends take care of one another.  She owns a large home - built in the very early 1900s - and has two tenants, a 20-something photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and a 40-something mechanic, William (Billy Crudup).  Abbie and William rent rooms and help fit the “it takes a village” bill, or at the very least, offer good company. 


Dorothea, however, puts her beliefs into well-defined action, by asking Jamie’s plutonic friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie to help raise her son, because she feels – as a single mom - that she cannot be there all the time.  Hence, these “20th Century Women” collectively attempt to raise Jamie, an impressionable teen, during a few weeks or months, in their beautiful coastal town. 


In this somewhat sleepy place, the film does not toss a dynamic collection of highs and lows and experiences at Jamie.  Instead, it smartly plays within the boundaries of ordinary Santa Barbara events, like meals around the house, skateboard rides on winding roads, a talk on the beach, or trips to local clubs to catch small punk rock shows.   These occurrences simply present the setting, but the real movement is with the valuable interactions between the five richly textured characters.


Dorothea and Jamie’s relationship clearly is the focal point, but Abbie, Julie and William play vitally important supporting players.  Mills gives each character a 60-second, fully-formed biography and places these individual reflections throughout the picture to explain their journeys, which eventually lead to Dorothea’s community.  


He gives them context, not only individual definitions of their imperfect selves, but avenues for authentic exchanges with one another, scene after scene.  We immediately settle in and feel comfortable with these characters, even when topics include health scares, explicit sex stories or reasons for loneliness.  Accompanied by a spiritual, new age score, these stories evoke empathic feelings for this genuine, onscreen ensemble and promote introspection on the winding paths of our own lives. 


All the while, Dorothea’s devotion to Jamie is never questioned.  Even though their generation gap – in terms of actual years - is larger than most moms and sons, it does not stop her from wanting to comprehend his interests:  girls, his friends and the ‘70s punk scene. Seemingly, about one thousand touching moments reach out from the screen, including some ideas not really spoken out loud in films. 


At one point Dorothea frankly says to Abbie with an air of despair, “You get to see him (Jamie) out in the world as a person, and I never will.”


I imagine that many mothers feel this way about their sons, but I have not heard it spoken in that specific fashion.   Perhaps Mills’ words combined with Bening’s deep, earthy and open performance will earn her a Best Actress Oscar.  That would be a nice bookend to Plummer’s win, but “20th Century Women” is a beautiful tribute to Mills’ mom and a special film, with or without Oscar hardware.

(3.5/4 stars)


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.