20th CENTURY WOMEN gets 8/10 Spirit of ’79

Directed by Mike Mills
Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zimerman

In Southern California, at the end of the 70s, a single mother worries about her teenage son growing up without a male role model. Going back to her own Depression era upbringing, Dorethea (Annette Bening), decides to pursue the old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child”. To do this she reaches out to her boarder, a photographer that has fled the New York art scene (Greta Gerwig), and her son’s female friend (Ella Fanning) and asks for their aid in raising Jamie (Lucas Jade Zimerman). However on the cusp of the a new decade, the world is undergoing change. It is an era of punk music, skate-boarding, and the tail-end of second wave feminism. For Jamie the question is, what does it mean to become a man in this era?

There is more a feeling of a book than film to 20th Century Women. The way it prioritises character development over narrative drive, the way it delves into chunks of other texts to illustrate the thought processes, the split structure of the story hanging from the arcs of different characters, narrations that jaunt into the future or the past to give further insight – it all feels like a novel that has been adapted to a screenplay. Oddly enough this is not the case, but rather a fresh and innovative semi-autobiographical (its extremely loosely based on his life) take on screen writing by director Mike Mills. The result is thoughtful, compelling and interesting. Although it may require a bit of patience out of the audience, to just relax into the quirky structure of the film, and enjoy the character exploration.

If you do have that patience, you are richly rewarded. Both by a great “coming of age” film, but also by an exploration of an era in change (America just on the cusp of Reagan), and in more general terms an exploration in identity and how we come to define ourselves at the end of the 20th century. It’s a process that is not just limited to one character, but rather all of the characters are in a constant process of redefining, and working out just who they are – and rather more importantly, just how to be. Like the sprawling house they live in, it is a constant process of renovation.

With such a reliance on characters, this gives the actors the ability to stretch their range. Bening is fascinating as the thoughtful and calculating Dorethea. You can see the wheels turning in her head, often as she over thinks things, but fiercely reliant and capable, as well as caring. By comparison, despite her Bowie like appearance, Gerwig buries herself in the role. Appearing as a timid and somewhat broken manic pixie dream-girl, till the odd explosive outburst proves otherwise. Fanning is equally enigmatic and tragic. Part friend, part unrequited love, part tutor. However it is Lucas Jade Zimerman that holds this eclectic collection together, with an earnest and quizzical performance.

More than just a wondrous piece of nostalgia (although it is that), this is a heart-warming film. 20th Century Women makes you examine the relationships that shaped your personality, and to be thankful for the positive influences in your life.