- Actors: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
- Director: Mike Mills
- Disc Format: AC-3, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
- Language: English
- Subtitles: English, Spanish
- Region: Region A/1
- Number of discs: 1
- Rated: R
- Studio: LIONSGATE
- Release Date: March 28, 2017
- Run Time: 118 minutes
In part, 20th Century Women is a coming-of-age tale. It is also a period examination of feminism in the 1970s, a story of the relationship between mother and son, and a contemplation on the necessity and simultaneous criticism of masculinity. 20th Century Women is only able to be all of these things because of the ensemble casting and an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by filmmaker Mike Mills, which does a careful balancing act that often feels like a precarious tight-rope walk. Although expertly constructed and easy to admire from a technical perspective, I did find myself longing for the emotional simplicity of Mills’ previous work.
Despite blending various themes and characters into one narrative, Mills is able to keep them fairly contained in the story. Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, the film stays centered on the slightly bohemian home of Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) as she struggles to raise a teenage boy without a proper male role model. Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) has no interest in the men that his mother tries to use in this role, including the handyman living as a boarder at their home (Billy Crudup), so Dorothea asks the women in his life to help teach him how to be a man.
As a man, I might have found this insulting, if it weren’t for the mixed results that occur. While Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Ellie Fanning), tries to teach him how to be tough like a ‘real man’ should act, she is simultaneously disappointed to discover that he is much like all of the other men that have let her down through her various defiant sexual exploits. Abby (Greta Gerwig), another boarder in their home, has slightly more success in teaching Jamie, though not always in a way that pleases Dorothea. As a punk artist feminist recovering from cancer, Abby brings an honesty and openness to the table that makes even the liberal-minded Dorothea somewhat uncomfortable.
This may have been enough for an entire film, but Mills is not satisfied merely having the women play roles in the adolescence of a male character, instead giving each of them their own somber sub-plots. Despite being a comedy, these women all seem steeped in melancholic unhappiness. Dorothea lives in a state of chosen loneliness, keeping most men she is interested in at an arm’s length. Julie cannot have sex with anyone she actually cares about, preferring young men that she considers idiots for her sexual rebellion. At fifteen, she has cynically decided that her life has no use for romance and defiantly refuses to believe that there is anything wrong with this. Although Abby has slightly more perspective and life experience, her preference for romance comes in the form of role playing, implying that she is also unable to have a healthy relationship.
There is something inherently unsettling about three women with such damaged views on love being the ones to teach Jamie, but that may be the point. At the tail end of the 1970s, these women are exercising their right to be who they want, regardless of what society thinks or how healthy it may actually be. These flaws may even be more important for Jamie to experience than the lessons themselves, allowing him to appreciate the fact that they are not the images of perfection that society previously demanded they be. In this sense, 20th Century Women couldn’t be set in any other time. It comes after the fight of women’s liberation, but just before the destruction brought by a consumer-centered decade. The result is a newfound freedom, which these women aren’t entirely certain what to do with, while attempting to teach a teenage boy how to be a man during a time when manliness had been downgraded.
As was the case with Beginners, Mills takes a simplistic storyline and embellishes it with his stylistic flourishes as a director. There are many cutaway shots within small sections of narration, allowing nearly all of the characters the opportunity for personal introspection. The rules of narrative are all but thrown out, as they are omnisciently able to see into the future while emoting through voice-over, while the camera drifts like a cinematic stream-of-consciousness. If nothing else, Mills has confidently established himself as an auteur with his third narrative feature.
The Blu-ray release for 20th Century Women comes with a Digital HD copy of the film, though no DVD copy. The special features on the actual disc include a commentary track with writer/director Mike Mills, as well as two featurettes. The first is a standard EPK making-of featurette, running just under 10 minutes, while the second is a slightly longer featurette specifically dealing with the cast of characters. Both the actors who play them and Mills provide interviews discussing these unique characters and how they are defined by the times.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 8.5/10
Historical Significance: 7.5/10
Special Features: 7/10