There’s a weird paradox that accompanies semi-autobiographical ‘coming of age’ filmmaking like 20th Century Women; despite clearly being deeply personal they are so familiar as a style now that it’s hard for them to really make an impact. It takes something truly brave to present something actually new, it’s just lucky for us the audience that 20th Century Women is such a thing. The most recent product of writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker), the film takes in 1979, Santa Barbara, California.
It is centred around Dorothea (Annette Benning), her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuuman), his friend Juliet (Elle Fanning) and their tenants Abbie(Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup) yet as you may have just inferred from the title, it is as much about the three central women as it is about their place in history as it is a film drenched in the imagery and vitality of the punk scene and also full of passages from seminal feminist texts of the time.
For a piece that is so heavy on character details, the actors work to make sure the writing doesn’t seem hackneyed or forced while the script also keeps the characters in a relatable reality. And what performances they are: Annette Benning is as good as she’s ever been pouring life into every mannerism and syllable that passes through her face, Gerwig has rarely been better and Billy Crudup gives a wonderfully emotive performance showing off why he’s one of the best unused commodities in modern Hollywood.
It is interesting that for a film that pertains to be about women that so much of it is really about a young male ‘coming of age’, not exactly untrodden ground, but it manages to differentiate it by being about the effect that each of these three figures has on Jamie but equally about how he’s weaved into their lives, making it never fully clear whose viewpoint we’re seeing any particular scene from. Quite cannily as well, each person has both a negative and a positive influence on him, it works to make it feel like these are real, functioning people.
20th Century Women manages to on top of being beautifully acted, shot, written and directed do something that a lot of films branded under the comedy-drama label can fail to do and actually manages to be funny. It’s not gut-busting hilarity but it has warmth, wit and a firm understanding of different character viewpoints so it never feels exploitative in its punchlines. Really, the hardest thing for me to say about it is finding something I didn’t like, beyond a flagrant underuse of Alia Shawkat. It probably isn’t for everyone, if you like plot, there isn’t really much here, but for character driven ‘action’, you won’t find much more incisive and entertaining cinematics anywhere. Plus, the soundtrack’s ace.
Dir: Mike Mills
Scr: Mike Mills
Pro: Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, Youree Henley
Cast: Annette Benning, Lucas Jade Zuuman, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning, Alia Shawkat
D.O.P: Sean Porter
Music: Roger Neill
Run time: 118 minutes
20th Century is out now on digital download & available on DVD from 26th June