20th Century Women (2017) – Review

Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann

The Overview
The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s. (Source: IMDb)

The Good
Having little to no expectations of a film can quite often go in its favour, and going in knowing as little as possible will only help it further. Going into 20th Century Women almost entirely blind, I was pleasantly surprised by its exploratory, yet free-flowing narrative, driven almost entirely by the strength of its performances, and the delightfully forthright and purposeful script.

This is a coming-of-age story of sorts, with the journey through adolescence of Jamie (Zumann) being shaped by three very different but powerful women. Chain-smoking matriarch Dorothea (Bening) heads up the unlikely family-esque unit, which also features artistic punk aficionado Abbie (Gerwig) and provocative teen Julie (Fanning). Struggling to bring up her son alone, Dorothea enlists their help in bringing up Jamie whilst they continue to manage their own struggles.

Placed deliberately in the late 1970s, 20th Century Women is a free-flowing film with a focus on the rebellious teenage spirit and somewhat bohemian sensibilities. The story itself is pretty non-existent and, in the grand scheme of things, fairly inconsequential, but it is a beautifully told narrative about love, discovery, growing up and everything in between. It is so refreshing for the focus to be on women, and whilst the famous saying may state that it takes a village to raise a child, this film firmly emphasises it is the women who have the most pivotal role to play.

In many ways, this is an empowering film, particularly for single mothers, or for any woman really who has struggled with identity or finding their place in the world. It is particularly interesting that the focus is on a adolescent boy and how he is shaped by the women in his life.

Some might criticise this film for this focus, but it never tries to hammer a point home. It isn’t offensive or degrading towards men, but rather a celebration of the powerful, diverse and strong women who had key roles to play in one teenagers life. Saying that it is alienating for men is nonsense as well; if you’re lacking in a character to identify with, there will at least be traits of the characters that will ring true for your own experiences.

The performances are solid all round with Bening and Gerwig being the highlights. Annette Bening gives an honest and touching portrayal of a mother struggling but striving to give her son the best opportunities in life, and Gerwig’s character easily has the most interesting character arc. She represents the rebellious punk spirit which was synonymous with this decade, helping to anchor the film both in its chosen time period and in its overarching themes and tone.

The Bad
The lack of a cohesive story might put some people off, but this was never an issue for me. These characters are a delight to spend time with, instantly likeable and relatable.

The only negative I can draw from this film is that it is perhaps lacking in repeat watchability, which is a bit of a shame.

The Verdict
I saw this movie and you should too.
Meandering but with a deliberate point of being so, 20th Century Women is a delight from start to finish. It is a funny, touching, honest and naturalistic, and its representations of femininity and adolescence will undoubtedly resonate with many. A heartfelt celebration of women with all their flaws and strengths on display, this film is not to be missed! 

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