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20th Century Women Movie Review

20th Century Women: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art
20th Century Women is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

20th Century Women (2016) movie poster 20th Century Women

Theatrical Release: December 28, 2016 / Running Time: 118 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Mike Mills

Cast: Annette Bening (Dorothea Fields), Elle Fanning (Julie), Greta Gerwig (Abbie), Lucas Jade Zumann (Jamie), Billy Crudup (William), Alia Shawkat (Trish), Nathalie Love (Cindy)

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Writer-director Mike Mills follows up 2011's Beginners, which won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Christopher Plummer, with 20th Century Women,
an original dramedy set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The film tells the story of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a vaguely-defined teenaged boy who is being raised by his divorced, open-minded mother Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening).

Worrying about Jamie at this pivotal point in his life, Jamie asks two other women to help her raise him: purple-haired boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie's slightly older friend and crush Julie (Elle Fanning). The ladies do what they can. Abbie shares her primary passion, feminism, while Julie opens up about her sexual experiences. Jamie goes to a club with Abbie and takes a road trip with Julie. Dorothea continues to worry about her son, hoping he'll find the happiness that has largely eluded her.

Mike Mills' semiautobiographical "20th Century Women" tells the story of a single mother (Annette Bening) raising a teenaged son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1970s California.

You presume 20th Century Women is autobiographical in nature and indeed Mills was born in nearby Berkeley in 1966. In Beginners, Plummer played a character based on Mills' father. Here, Bening shares a number of qualities with Mills' mother, including a death from cancer in 1999. In this fictionalization, Bening is single, which is a variation on the married but secretly gay life his father (and Plummer's character) led.

20th Century Women is easy to admire for its recreation of a time and place. You can also respect that women, a gender largely marginalized on both sides of the camera in film, get to feature prominently here in three three-dimensional leading roles. Unfortunately, there is little else to appreciate about the film, which is a series of incidents that do not add up to anything greater. Mills pays homage to the books, music, and films that shaped him with title and year-crediting text accompanying excerpts from the likes of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi to Judy Blume's Forever. And if you grew up in a similar time, were exposed to comparable bits of culture, and led a similarly gender-enlightened life surrounded by women, this should resonate deeply with you.

Dorothea (Annette Bening) asks Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to help mother her son.

If not, you may struggle to stay awake, as I did even with the aid of a coffee drink. The cast is good, from the dependable Bening and oft-great Gerwig to newcomer Zumann and, in the biggest adult male role of note, Billy Crudup.
Mills injects the proceedings with both authenticity (having lived it) and flair (a number of driving scenes turn roadside surroundings prismatic as if under the spell of a hallucinogen). And there are definitely some interesting ideas raised, from the perils of parenting to the possibilities of unwanted pregnancy or infertility. But it fails to produce a strong emotional response or real investment.

Perhaps this celebration of women might have meant more with a woman at the helm, since there is such a dearth of female directors in Hollywood. Or perhaps there just isn't a film to be found in this chapter of Mills' life that is able to captivate those who haven't had comparable experiences. 20th Century is well-made and flirts with profundity and poignancy (the narration that travels through time to put these images into context is moving and a creative touch), but it never completely captures them or leaves you feeling fulfilled.

A four-time Oscar bridesmaid, Bening has built an "overdue" narrative over her long career as she approaches 60. That might earn her some sympathy votes, but this is neither the movie nor the performance to push her into the winner's circle. In a productive few years, Gerwig has become overdue for an Oscar nomination, but again she too has done more rewarding and substantial work elsewhere. A24 has a real Oscar contender in Moonlight, which might well mean that two nominations in the Golden Globes' characteristically weak Comedy or Musical categories may represent the height of 20th Century Women's recognition.

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Related Reviews:
20th Century Women (Blu-ray)
Now in Theaters: Live by Night Patriots Day Hidden Figures Jackie Manchester by the Sea Elle Nocturnal Animals La La Land Moonlight
Annette Bening: The Kids Are All Right The Women The Grifters Running with Scissors Rules Don't Apply Girl Most Likely
Greta Gerwig: Maggie's Plan Frances Ha Mistress America Greenberg Arthur | Elle Fanning: The Neon Demon Maleficent
Billy Crudup: Rudderless Spotlight Eat Pray Love
1970s: Dazed and Confused Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition

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Reviewed January 12, 2017.



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