Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
In 1979 California (a moment in time brimming with cultural and political change) Dorothy Fields (Bening), a mid-50s single mother enlists the help of two younger and very different women (Fanning and Gerwig) to help bring up her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and help him find his place in the world and disocve rthat kind of young man he wants to be.
There is of course nothing wrong with an auteur having a single, uncompromising vision and very much making the film they want to. Indeed, in this day and age of producers not wanting to part with their money to fund a film unless it bows down to the demands of the masses, a film that does this can feel like a breath of fresh air. However, sometimes these writer/ directors do need someone to reign them in from time to time (Tarantino being very much the ultimate example of this).
Well, thanks to Mike Mill’s unique narrative approach to 20th Century Women it is an engaging and poignant film brimming with ideas and philosophies about life, and indeed should be applauded for being like this (this applause is to follow). However, what stops 20th Century Women from being the great film that it could have been is that in terms of its story telling, it is very ill-disciplined and often does tread very dangerously into the perilous lands of self-indulgence.
The slightly unusual narrative structure of 20th Century Women, with its random voice-overs supplied by various characters (who sometimes decide to tell us what will happen in the future to themselves) and slightly contrived collection of random characters clubbed together, does render it a film that is sometimes quite hard to get into, and it does at times feel that Mills is not sure himself where his film is going to go next, as the sequence of some scenes feels very random. There are some great individual scenes, but how they are all put together sadly tends to not be done quite so well.
However, once the film gets going and we all get to know the characters, then 20th Century Women does emerge as a deeply engaging film filled with interesting ideas and relatable, poignant questions and philosophies, and characters that are intriguing and good to have around.
Though 20th Century Women is very much about a specific time period of key political and cultural change in the USA, it explains enough to be inclusive to viewers of any generation, and also has at its core enough relatable themes that could apply to any point in time.
All five of the film’s unique main characters just long to have a sense of understanding of who they are and find their own unique place in the world. As they try to do this during the film’s (slightly messy) narrative, there are most certainly more questions than answers as a result, but this adds poignancy as we apply these universal traits to our own unique experiences and understanding of the world. The fact that these are questions that do not have a simple answer, and how 20th Century Women deals with these interesting and ideas and philosophies is one of the main reasons as to why it does emerge as a very engaging viewing experience.
Of course, this is very much a character driven narrative, and at the centre driving the narrative is a mother trying to bring up her son to be the best man he can be. Due to the changing cultural and political landscape of America at that time, and her age, she enlists the help of the other characters. This does undoubtedly make for a very engaging coming-of-age story, and the journey of Jamie as he tries to figure out who he is, while others tell him who he should be.
Mills’ script is also often irreverent and very funny, though the humour does often seem to embrace the apparent random-ness of the narrative, it does bring about some hilarious moments. Mills can certainly write some great dialogue and construct some superb individual scenes, but it’s a shame he can’t be a bit more disciplined with the overall narrative structure.
The success of both the emotion and humour of 20th Century Women is also down to excellent performances from the cast; Annette Bening is exceptional as Dorothy, emerging as an engaging and sympathetic character, and she captures the deep internal and emotional scars that her character has with absolute aplomb, while her delivery of the funnier lines is spot-on. Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig also capture the loneliness and isolation that both of their characters feel in a very successful and understated way, and Billy Crudup is also excellent in his role. We want to know about their individual backstories, but are given enough to appreciate that they have as many questions themselves about their own lives as Jamie does, even though they are trying to teach him to discover who he is. As Jamie, Lucas Jade Zumann is also excellent, and his character is likeable while having enough flaws to be relatable without being too infuriating. The narrative is mainly his journey, and we can relate to this journey and the questions it raises. Though of course, as much as we wish that we are all as eloquent as Jamie when we were 15, his eloquence does feel a little fake and at the convenience of the narrative at times.
20th Century Women is certainly a film with more questions than answers, but that is one of the reasons as to why it is such an engaging film. It may lack discipline and focus at times, but it is a film about philosophies, ideas and questions, and not about simple answers and conclusions. This is all depicted through relatable characters, and for that reason it engages and very much stays in the subconscious of the viewer.
A slightly flawed film with a very ill-disciplined narrative structure, but despite these flaws 20th Century Women has enough intelligence and humour, and relatable themes and characters to be a deeply engaging experience.