20th Century Women




A tricksy approach undermines a portrait of American life in 1979.

20th Century Woman  

Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig


It’s not unusual to see a really poor trailer for a film that is actually very good indeed. The reverse is much rarer, but it applies to 20th Century Women. The trailer is immediately notable for showing us the film’s star, Annette Bening, rejecting rejuvenating make-up and presenting us with a wholly persuasive portrait of a single mother in her mid-fifties. Furthermore, everything around her suggests that the film will present a slice of life with characters that will engage us. We are further encouraged in this belief by the fact that 20th Century Women is the work of writer/director Mike Mills. It was he who in 2010 gave us the brilliant Beginners, a film that drew inspiration from Mills’s own father having come out as gay when a widower in his seventies. That encouraged one to expect comparable conviction here, for this time Mills when writing had in mind the character of his mother as he set out to capture on film the essence of a time and a place, Santa Barbara, California in 1979.


That year finds Dorothea (that’s Bening’s role) trying to adjust to the times as she brings up her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Aware of generational gaps becoming ever more severe, she hopes that both Jamie’s platonic friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who is two years older than him, and her lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is in her twenties, will help to guide the boy in ways that will avoid any sense of his being subjected to pressure by a disciplinary middle-aged mother. There is also another lodger in the house, William (Billy Crudup), who is one of many attracted to Julie but who builds a rapport with Dorothea herself. However, the film offers us not so much a plot as incidents that give us a view of life in a past era.


That being so, what is needed is an approach that makes everything seem real yet, in contrast to Beginners, that is not what Mills offers. What we do get is not even a heightened evocation of days long gone as in Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987), but a film which first reveals its stylised mode through its use of music. The film’s score is utterly at odds with the need to make us believe in the actuality of what we are seeing and songs intrude - often over more than one scene as in the case of ‘As Time Goes By’ performed by Rudy Vallee. In due course, other elements are added including speeded-up footage, occasional black and white images among scenes shot in colour and touches of psychedelic colouring. In this context some of the dialogue starts to sound set up and, while voice-overs by various characters are acceptable, there is a jarring moment when the mother, Dorothea, suddenly tells us of how she will die of cancer in 1999.


Many critics love this film partly because it shows sympathy for all of his characters, but others have found its tone arch and tiresome and that is how I feel about it. The actors are fine and in no way to blame. However, for this film to work you have to be drawn in to find belief in the world of these people and, sadly, Mills’s decision to present it as a stylised world turns the film for some of us at least into a fiasco.




Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone.


Dir Mike Mills, Pro Megan Ellison, Anne Carey and Youree Henley, Screenplay Mike Mills, Ph Sean Porter, Pro Des Christopher Jones, Ed Leslie Jones, Music Roger Neill, Costumes Jennifer Johnson.


Annapurna Pictures/Modern People/Archer Gray-Entertainment One.
118 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 10 February 2017. Cert. 15.