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20th Century Women - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
20th Century Women
Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B

I take a sort of affirmative action approach to movies when it comes to balancing representation of the sexes onscreen: far too often, even when a film's main character is a woman, they are surrounded by male supporting characters. Very, very rarely is a majority of the leads all-female. So even when it doesn't appear to be great, as long as it doesn't look terrible, when that happens I tend to want to give it a look. (Such was the case with last year's merely-decent Equity.) Film is such a collaborative process, it's a miracle when the stars align and they come out great. So when one comes along with multiple strong female performances, the fact that it got made, and was made well, in this gender-lopsided industry, is truly cause for celebration.

Enter 20th Century Women, a subtly feminist tale of an older mother (55-year-old Dorothea, played by 58-year-old Annette Bening) raising a 15-year-old son, Jamie, in a world on the verge of massive cultural shifts in 1979. Jamie is played by unknown young actor Lucas Jade Zumann, and he is fine. It's the women around him who give great performances; one might go so far as to say Bening is superb.

Dorothea owns a house large enough that she rents out some of the rooms, one of which is to twentysomething Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Julie (Elle Fanning), who has been close friends with Jamie, is 17 and comes over to sleep nights, although she won't have sex with him, much to Jamie's frustration. There's also handyman William (Billy Crudup), who seems just out of reach to Dorothea. The story somewhat dances around the idea of them getting together, but they never quite go there. Julie declares the idea "inappropriate," and maybe it just would have seemed more so in 1979 than it does now for a woman to be romantic in any way with a man a decade her junior.

Dorothea is wildly permissive as a parent, clearly fancying herself liberated, but she has some real repressions. This is a delicate balance if ever there was one, and Bening pulls it off extraordinarily well. Her performance alone makes 20th Century Women worth seeing, although Fanning and Gerwig more than pull their own weight.

The story meanders a bit, that's part of the point: confusion in a changing world. At least, for aging Dorothea, anyway; the other characters, particularly Jamie, all seem closer to having their shit together than she does. Writer-director Mike Mills (who also gave us the excellent Beginners) creates wholly realized characters across the board, but Bening gives Dorothea a truly unique, beautifully flawed soul. She has no chance of winning in the year of La La Land, but she deserves an Oscar nomination. (It's strange, even, that the SAG Awards nominated Meryl Streep once again and thereby left Bening off their list.)

There is some odd editing, perhaps the only thing that detracts even slightly from the overall lovely experience that is 20th Century Women -- a fast-forward effect, evidently getting us more quickly through characters going about their business. Occasionally it is actually effective; more often than not it is distracting. It's somewhat made up for by some great cinematography; the establishing opening shot looks directly down on the rolling waves headed to the shores of Santa Barbara, only a single bird flying slowly across the frame indicating how far up we really are. Bening, Gerwig and Fanning are always radiant, perfectly framed.

There is a particular tone to 20th Century Women that is all its own, which makes it near impossible to describe. It's something just this side of nostalgia. It's soothing, in a way. A pleasure to be in the company of these women, all of them far from perfect yet still pleasant to be around. Even the boy, Jamie, has an energy that just makes you want to hug him. And with the help of the younger women, he develops a genuinely feminist mind, which gets him into trouble with other boys and ultimately convinces Dorothea that it's all too much for someone his age. But it's really about what might be too much for someone her age, parental permissiveness notwithstanding.

And Bening makes Dorothea someone you root for in a very specific way: you want her to get out of her own way. She's working too hard to stay out of Jamie's way, to the point of it backfiring a bit. But things never go to extremes in this story, and it's all the better for it -- a more realistic depiction of everyday life for people, however unique they may be. This is a film that is gentle in all its aspects, both introspective and fun. It's worth the time.

Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig are 20TH CENTURY WOMEN.

Overall: B+
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