20th Century Women
Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
There have been incalculable films about young men coming of age, many of them feature father-and-son dynamics that seem strained, but otherwise redeemable. 20th Century Women upends that traditional narrative structure by putting the strain into the maternal side of the equation.
Writer/director Mike Mills tackles 1979 in this exploration of the life of a single mother and her struggles to raise her teenage son. Annette Bening delivers one of her finest performances as the emotionally isolated mother who doesn’t want her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) to turn out like her and enlists the help of his best friend (Elle Fanning) and another woman (Greta Gerwig) co-habitating with them, all under the watchful eye of a fellow tenant and handyman (Billy Crudup).
Using the emergence of punk rock as the backdrop for this particular narrative, Mills employs the music of the era to punctuate the various events that inform Jamie’s (Zumann) youth. A semi-autobiographical story, 20th Century Women is as much about the women in Jamie’s life as it is about his burgeoning adulthood.
Central to the film’s success is Bening’s performance as Jamie’s mother Dorothea. Aloof and disconnected, she nevertheless cares about Jamie and his upbringing. Dorothea was raised in an era of female empowerment and impresses on her son the importance of trusting and understanding women. As hands-off as she is about her son’s development, she is no less committed to him being better than she. All of this is informed by Bening’s hard edged delivery. It’s a work of subtle control. Oftentimes Bening has a penchant for mechanical and obvious acting tics, but this performance feels like a natural extension of her talents, effortlessly moving through the film. I can’t think of another of her performance that feels this rich and defined.
While it would be easy to shrink in the presence of such potency, the cast is nevertheless impressive. Gerwig has an effortless charm to all of her performances, deftly blending comedy into drama and anchoring the film’s moral center in effective ways. Fanning, never one to be outclassed, is no less incredible conveying the trepidation and unearned assuredness that accompanies teenhood.
Zumann’s newness to the realm of acting is barely noticeable as he embodies’ Mills affectations and insecurities with confidence. Crudup rounds out the household in his typical reliable ways. That he doesn’t feel as developed as the other characters may stem from his limited connectivity to the events going on in the film. While he is a crucial part of them, the character seems like a pseudo-tangential element rather than a necessary part of it.
Skillfully written, the film is one of the jewels of 2016, left at the curbside by a number of other films that explore deeper, supposedly more resonant subjects. Mills does excellent work with this knowing screenplay that tackles women’s issues in a unique and contemporary way while feeling part-and-parcel of the era.
While the time in which this film is set is seldom seen as one of the more tumultuous periods of American history, 20th Century Women nevertheless makes the case that the era informed and influenced a new era of young men and women, who would later become known as Millennials.
September 5, 2018