20th Century Women

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**** (out of five)

There have been countless coming-of-age comedy/dramas about significant years in young men’s lives: the year they got laid, the year their father died, the year they lost their innocence. But never have I seen a film about the year a fifteen year-old became a feminist. Mike Mills’ autobiographical 20th Century Women is just that, and it is wonderful.

It’s interesting to review 20th Century Women in the wake of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come, which is also an autobiographical portrait of the filmmaker’s mother. While a young woman – obviously Hansen-Løve’s surrogate – only briefly appears in Things To Come, having very little impact on the story, in 20th Century Women the protagonist is obviously the “Mike Mills” character, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). So in Things To Come, Hansen-Løve shows you her mother; in 20th Century Women, Mills shows you his mother’s effect on him.

But not just hers – most definitely not! Mills grew up surrounded by women, and the fictionalised account he offers here makes them three: his / Jamie’s mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend, 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), and lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dad’s nowhere to be seen, but there’s another lodger, William (Billy Crudup), supplying at least a version of mature(ish!) masculinity. (Incidentally, Mills’ last film Beginners (2010) was based on his father, who came out as a gay man in his mid-70s).

It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara and Dorothea, a graphic artist, runs her large, rambling, constantly-under-renovation house like a very laid-back boarding house. Her boarders William and Abbie are both, essentially, escaping their lives while trying to figure out new ones, while Julie escapes nightly from her own home into Jaime’s bedroom to sleep with him platonically, which is more than a little confusing to his roiling hormones. Sensing the changes exploding within him, his mother enlists the aid of Abbie and Julie in his emotional education, but Abbie’s determined feminism and Julie’s own confusing pubescence aren’t necessarily the life lessons Dorothea is hoping to offer. As a fifty-five year old professional woman with a slightly bohemian lifestyle, Dorothea is a little too late for the revolution, but also an embodiment of its basic ideals.

The film is punctuated with quotes from the feminist texts Jaime reads throughout the year along with clips from the punk bands he is listening to (both thanks to Abbie). This juxtaposition is original and thrilling. What an intense experience, to be listening to The Raincoats while reading Our Bodies, Ourselves while surrounded by three generations of women all trying to figure it out for themselves! Mills makes it personal, touching and true. It all smells very real, very honest, very heartfelt.

It’s also really funny. I laughed out loud – a lot – at some of the best lines this year. The humour flows organically, from the situation and from the truth of the characters. Nothing feels forced. No emotions are coerced. Everything feels genuine, artistic, pure.

And the performances are fantastic. Much has already been said about Bening’s excellent, multi-faceted portrayal (the film came out in the United States months ago) but Gerwig and Fanning both give career-bests. Zumann is always believable and crafty with a sly zinger, and Crudup’s performance is – here’s that horrible critic’s word – revelatory. Humble, odd, gentle, yet disarmingly sexual, William is an enigmatic, extremely rich character, completely realised. It’s a houseful ensemble of excellence, in a thoroughly entertaining, sophisticated, beautifully crafted film. Highly, highly recommended.

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