After detailing his own father’s coming out at the age of 75 in the Oscar-winning 2010 outing Beginners, writer/director Mike Mills tackles the stories of his mother and sister in 20th Century Women, an exploratory tale of finding one’s own happiness.
As Mills opts to create an individual snapshot for each of his female role models – detailing their influences and motives – there’s a slight fragmentation that presents itself with this approach, though the characters themselves all prove entertaining and interesting enough that it’s a gimmicky technique that sails rather than sinks.
The most prominent female character on hand is Dorothea (played so fabulously by Annette Bening), a chain-smoking 50-something who is feeling the generational gap between her and her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), grow stronger each day. Fearing that she is losing a sense of who he is, she recruits 17 year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) and 20-something Abbie (Greta Gerwig) in a bid to help Jamie learn about women.
The bohemian-like Abbie, a budding photographer who was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer, lives a spirited life and has come to know both Jamie and Dorothea through her renting of one of Dorothea’s many spare rooms in her expansive boarding house. Julie, a nymph-of-sorts who has disconnected herself from her therapist mother and spends every other night sneaking into Jamie’s bedroom to share his bed (though never to have sex), is far more care-free in her attitudes towards life, and it’s through their life experiences that Dorothea hopes Jamie will open up; property handyman William (Billy Crudup) surprisingly distances himself from offering any manly advice, instead focusing his attention on both Dorothea and Abbie.
Conversations about birth control, loss of virginity, clitoral stimulation and menstruation flow freely, and if Mills wasn’t writing from personal experience then the dialogue on hand may come off as more contrived than it does, but there’s a certain naturalistic flow to the prose on hand, and when delivered with the correct quirks from Gerwig or the smug reliability of Fanning it feels all too organic.
As impressive as the cast as a collective are, 20th Century Women is ultimately Bening’s film though, and even if her character’s actions aren’t always agreeable, in the hands of this supremely capable actress, Dorothea stands as the kind of woman most can relate to – a caring, well-meaning human with her own set of rules and ideas that yearns for a closeness with the one she loves the most.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
20th Century Women is in cinemas now.