Movie Review: 20th Century Women

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Disclaimer: This is an adaptation of a review I wrote for The Gryphon 5 months ago which they ran as a four star review but I wrote as a five star review so take this as my five star review thanks bye.

Director: Mike Mills

Writer: Mike Mills

Stars: Annette BeningElle FanningGreta GerwigBilly CrudupLucas Jade Zumann

Verdict: Fucking fantastic, a strong, strong, five stars. 

20th Century Women is an absolute joy. It is a film with a genuine affection for its characters – it’s laugh out loud funny and heart-breaking. It’s pertinent to the time in which we live. I laughed, I cried, and I spent the whole film wearing a big, stupid smile because it’s full of genuine, infectious warmth.

The film follows Dorothea, played superbly by Annette Benning, (American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right), who co-opts the women in her son’s life, Abbie and Julie, (played by Greta Gerwig, (Frances Ha, Jackie), and Elle Fanning, (The Neon Demon, Super 8), respectively), in helping to raise her son, Jamie. The other major player in proceedings is lodger William played by Billy Crudup, (Watchmen, Almost Famous).

There is something indescribable about this film. I know that’s absolutely terrible for a critic to say but there is some intangible element to this film that’s like some kind of womb of emotion. It’s both full of joy and life and feel and colour but that’s also undercut by an extreme kind of existential melancholy, and the film is sometimes very precise in exactly the way which it undercuts it’s joi de vivre. 

The first time I saw it I was bowled over by it, then I watched it on DVD, and because I just absolutely love those characters like people I know, and it just made me so deeply sad to see them go through hard times that I actually had to stop watching it. Then I watched it with my Mum last night. There are elements to the film that very precisely attack the relationship with the mother but not in some post-modern, pervy, Freudian way but in a way that without really switching perspectives captures the lapses in communication, captures the way relationships can fracture and be complicated and intimate and grow apart a bit. It really attacks all kinds of relationships in a really beautifully nuanced way that takes the rough with the smooth when it comes to characters, their cons don’t make them inherently bad people, they’re just complicated, and real. 

Its foundation is essentially its wonderful, Oscar nominated screenplay, (which should have won), which really takes the time to flesh out it’s characters fully, it’s full of wit, charm, and insight and love for it’s characters to the extent it’s kind of painfully infectious. Bought to life with excellent direction from writer Mike Mills, (Beginners, Thumbsucker), full of colour and experimentation that’s surprising for such a low key drama. With films like this and Moonlight this year directors are taking films that could easily be filmed in a Mike Leigh, (Mr. Turner, Vera Drake), or Ken Loach, (I, Daniel Blake, Kes), socio-realism quietness because there aren’t exactly any grand set-pieces but they’re elevated by brilliant virtuosic direction. 

Mills has also gotten phenomenal performances out of a talented ensemble cast. Annette Benning plays Dorathea with this beautifully expressive face and posture that lends her and kind of rigidness but in the way that her character is, ready for anything, or at least under the impression of herself that she is. Bill Crudup plays William with this wonderful stoner fluidity that just seems entirely natural, he is not constricted by anything but his self, so contrary to his beautifully poised and detached performances in Jackie and Alien: Covenant this year. Greta Gerwig’s character always seems on the verge of crying except when she’s rocking out, (which I think a lot of my audience will probably get to be honest), and it’s so, delicate, and precise, and beautiful. 

It’s interesting that one of the principle characters is played by Elle Fanning, who was so great in The Neon Demon, because The Neon Demon was a film about artifice, about characters who were dead in the eyes with nothing beneath the surface. In contrast, the best thing about 20th Century Women is that each character feels real, and full. The conceit of the plot is that each character is asked to share their life with Jamie, so we learn all about each character’s quirks, interests and passions. It was Roger Ebert who said that films are meant to be empathy machines, and that’s exactly what this film is.

It really is a film for everyone. I know that were moments and lines that I found painfully relatable from all of the characters. It’s also interwoven with a brilliant progressive feminist message which is just that, “every man should know what it is to be a women”. It’s also brilliantly made, most films with as pertinent a jukebox soundtrack as this film would really lean on their needle drops for their sonic soundscape but Roger Neill, (Beginners), actually puts in a brilliant shift with some Oscar worthy original score. 

There aren’t many other ways I can say that I absolutely adore this movie and you need to see it. I think it’s my favourite of the year so far. 

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