20th Century Women Review: It Takes a Village

Photo Credit:http://www.npr.org/2016/12/19/506137458/mike-mills-grapples-with-his-mothers-tricky-ghost-in-20th-century-women

As far as coming of age dramedies go, they don’t get much better than 20th Century Women. Chronicling the maturation of a boarding house full of colorful, fully realized characters, the film is a celebration of life and all its intricate, small beauties. It’s an ode to women, an ode to boys trying to become good men, an ode to feminists, an ode to those lost yearning to be found, and, most poignantly, an ode to mothers.

Dorothea (Annette Bening, terrific as ever) is raising her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, a newcomer to watch) in 1979, when the country was in a transition phase between the unruly, protest-fueled Nixon years into the calmer, less emotional Reagan era. She also collects rent from two other tenants living in their large California home, Abbie (Greta Gerwig, putting up a refreshing restraint), an artsy photographer ripped from her creative hub in New York City due to cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), a washed up middle-aged hippie who does a lot of the housework. Then there’s Julie (Elle Fanning, also terrific), a young woman who’s tried more things than Jamie at just two years older than him, but captures his lust and desire as a boy going through puberty.

The dysfunctional family of 20th Century Women is the film’s greatest asset. Writer-director Mike Mills makes the most of his runtime, perfectly fleshing out all five of them to create fully realized human characters. We quickly get rundowns of each of their situations through snarky narration by either Dorothea or Jamie, sometimes both, that let the film build on them more efficiently, but no less effectively, and take them to the rewarding places we see them last before the credits roll.

In the meantime, we watch them discuss issues of maturation, gender and authenticity. Dorothea is relatively “woke,” as we put it in 2016, to the world and how her son is going to grow up, treating him like a person who’s thoughts and feelings are just as important as her own. Without a father in the picture, she enlists Abbie and Julie to help build him up in the areas she can’t as his mother. So he reads up on the female orgasm, thanks to Abbie’s library, and gains emotional support from Julie, his best friend despite wanting more. Having Dorothea be so attune to how her son is growing up, and trying to have a hand in it fairly late in the game, creates a coming of age story for herself as well. The message ends up being that life is hard and stays hard no matter what you do. We see this through the film’s effortless, often hysterical script, as well as the performances from the entire ensemble, particularly Bening.

But the film isn’t just about life’s difficulties, it’s about how you get through them. Sometimes, when you have nothing else, you just have to dance with the people you love most. As our country enters another period of uncertainty, like the one these characters are closing out in 1979, this sense of comfort and companionship is worth more now than ever for most of us. 20th Century Women celebrates our humanity, who we are and who we aim to be. It’s near flawless execution paired with some of the best characters in cinema this year makes it one of the best of 2016. Grade: A

By Matt Dougherty

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