Title: 20th Century Women
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Mike Mills
Music: Roger Neill
Cinematography: Sean Porter
Lucas Jade Zumann
American filmmaker Mike Mills’ third feature film, 20th CENTURY WOMEN is a semi-autobiographical treatment thrives for encapsulating the zeitgeist of its time through the eyes of his alter ego Jamie (Zumann), a 15-year-older living in Santa Barbara in 1979, and those who are involved in his life at that stage, including his single mother Dorothea (Bening), Julie (Fanning), the girl-next-door he cottons to, and two tenants sharing the same roof with the mother-son pair: a free-wheeling cinematographer Abbie (Gerwig) and William (Crudup), an ex-hippie-turned-mechanic, that’s the central quintet.
Each character is given a magnanimous character arc to lay bare their problems and quirks, Dorothea is concerned with the communication blockage caused when Jamie reaching adolescence and asks both Julie and Abbie for help, to infuse their feminine wisdom to ease the process, but the mirror has two faces, in Jamie’s book, it is her who has drifted away from him, emotionally speaking, her ingrained sadness and loneliness has hog-tied her from even attempting to seek a new lease on her life. Bening puts a defiant face to sort out a mother’s indefatigable stamina conjoined with hapless frustration, whenever the camera leveling at her, she radiates with élan and candid, no matter how platitudinous her lines are, her masterclass delivery is the ballast of this snappy but also self-indulging reflection of an ineffectual Bildungsroman, interlaced with lengthy voice-over and token signs-of-the-times.
As a patent feminist manifesto indicated by its name, Mills makes heavy plays of its female characters, Abbie, stricken by cervical cancer and runs the risk of forfeiting motherhood, is the most sympathetic character and a ginger Gerwig is perfectly cast, she is tasked with the “menstruation” oration, because of her time-tested screen persona: she can be radical, quirky, but simultaneously vulnerable and self-effacing, a quality so unique that often errs on the side of being typecast. Elle Fanning’s Julie, on the other hand, tiptoes between adolescence and adulthood, dangles Jamie with her dalliance with others yet maintains a chaste relationship with him (he has been entrapped in the friends zone for too long), but that’s what is part and parcel of an impressionable young girl, especially a pretty one and those equally impressionable young boys need to respect that!
From that viewpoint, we might find the film tends to be a tad didactic and patronizing since the story chiefly sets the main key on the more conventional “the kid is alright” arc of a cisgender boy, who has grown up in a household peopled with women who are much more interesting than him, even the undervalued William, who is not exactly a conventional father figure, but Crudup is in one of his most relaxed and unassuming forms, somewhat inward-looking but alternately exuberantly charming.
While one might feel underwhelmed by its self-referential narrative and jarring by its often clunky dialogue, at the very least, the film has a congenial flair of communion among its main characters, and from the opening aerial shot introducing its locale to its eye-soothing vintage production, to the time-lapsed novelty of automobiles in motion, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN proves that it has enough ammo in the cartridge, but the shooter himself is not a deadeye.
referential points: Mills’ BEGINNERS (2010, 6.3/10), THUMBSUCKER (2005, 6.4/10)