20th Century Women – movie review

by James Robins / 13 June, 2018

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A director’s fictionalised account of his upbringing in 20th Century Women is a love letter to his family. 

In 2010, Mike Mills made Beginners, a jubilant and semi-autobiographical account of his father’s liberated final years when he came out aged 75. In 20th Century Women, Mills turns to the other side of the family: his mother and sisters, and the era in which he grew up.

Annette Bening plays Dorothea Fields, middle-aged single mother to curly-haired teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). The year is 1979, in the lull between Nixon and Reagan. Punk is dying, hardcore and new wave are on the way in (the excellent soundtrack spans Black Flag to Talking Heads). Jimmy Carter’s on TV, speaking sternly about a “crisis of confidence”.

Dorothea and Jamie share a decaying house with Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer who dyes her hair red after seeing David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and moustachioed mechanic William (Billy Crudup), who talks about the “Earth Mother” even though the 60s counterculture became kitsch long ago. Elle Fanning plays Julie, a rebellious 17-year-old who slips through Jamie’s window for a cuddle, though he wishes for more.

Together, they form a family, each of them gently pulling Jamie in a different direction, opening up to his curiosity. These moments can be equally poignant and hilarious: Abbie gives him a copy of the seminal anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, and he promptly gets beaten up for lecturing a skate-park bully on the intricacies of female pleasure. “I think I’m a feminist,” he shrugs, hopefully.

But Dorothea remains the matriarch: confidence and vulnerability Bening’s portrayal is a masterclass in confidence and vulnerability (unfairly overlooked in this year’s awards season).

Mills’ interrogation of the film version of his mother, questioning her purpose, her loneliness, her desires, is vaguely unsettling. Jamie naively reads to her from a Zoe Moss essay subtitled The Ageing Woman: “I am bitter and frustrated and wasted, but don’t you pretend for a minute as you look at me, 43, fat, and looking exactly my age, that I am not as alive as you are …” Bening registers recognition with a flash of shock and discomfort.

Somewhere in the background of the film, there’s a hint of melancholy, a nagging that becomes clear only when the narration slips from the past tense into the future. We’re not watching a vivid recollection but a nostalgic imagining. And because this alternate universe, this alternate family is so deeply rooted in Mills’ personal story, it’s a wonder that he’s managed to make a film so universal, and by the close, utterly transcendent. It is a love letter, tender, funny and deeply adoring.

Video: eOne ANZ

IN SELECTED CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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