20th Century Women – movie review

by James Robins / 13 June, 2018

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

RelatedArticlesModule - 20th century women movie

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.

Latest

How new approaches to toilet-training reflect our changing parenting styles
94772 2018-08-14 00:00:00Z Health

How new approaches to toilet-training reflect our …

by Ruth Nichol

For the first half of the 20th century, mothers were expected to hold their baby over a potty after every feed from the time they were a month old.

Read more
Quinovic property franchise social media campaign offends tenants
94939 2018-08-13 19:26:53Z Property

Quinovic property franchise social media campaign …

by Catherine Hutton

A brazen social media campaign by a franchise the property management company Quinovic has disgusted some tenants.

Read more
The case for Idris Elba to be the next James Bond
94907 2018-08-13 13:35:15Z Movies

The case for Idris Elba to be the next James Bond

by Jenny Nicholls

Rumour mill goes into overdrive with a cryptic tweet from one of the bookies' favourites to take over the 007 role.

Read more
Don Brash nominated for New Zealander of the Year
94891 2018-08-13 12:11:41Z Social issues

Don Brash nominated for New Zealander of the Year

by RNZ

Former National Party leader and Reserve Bank governor Don Brash has been nominated for New Zealander of the Year.

Read more
How free should speech on campus be?
94869 2018-08-13 10:16:57Z Education

How free should speech on campus be?

by Ana Mari Cauce, Clayton Rose, Connie Ledoux Book

The issue of how to facilitate or regulate free speech on campus came to a head a year ago in Charlottesville. Here, 3 college presidents weigh in.

Read more
'We have had to ration dialysis' - Immigration NZ
94845 2018-08-13 07:05:14Z Health

'We have had to ration dialysis' - Immigration NZ

by Gill Bonnett

NZ dialysis patients are having their treatment rationed because of ineligible immigrants turning up for emergency care, according to govt documents.

Read more
Fare strike suggested as Wellington commuters vent about new bus network
94842 2018-08-13 06:48:50Z Business

Fare strike suggested as Wellington commuters vent…

by Emma Hatton

Fed up Wellington bus passengers urged to consider not paying their fares in protest at the capital's revamped public transport network.

Read more
Do principles like fairness and kindness matter in New Zealand?
94581 2018-08-13 00:00:00Z Social issues

Do principles like fairness and kindness matter in…

by Virginia Larson

Amid a hate speech and free speech furore, there are people working to build a better New Zealand.

Read more