Though this time in my cinematic year is usually taken up by all of the films that have been nominated for acting and Best Picture awards at the Oscars, 20th Century Women, a partially autobiographical story of director Mike Mill’s early life, had been on my radar of interest for some time. Filled with performers that I love and entering UK theatres with a stellar critical reception, I was excited to see if my high expectations could be met.
The film tells the story of 15 year old Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) and the eccentric, varied group of women who take it upon themselves to teach him life lessons and raise him amidst the complex backdrop of the late 1970s. These women are Dorothea (Annette Bening), his 55 year old mother, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), their 24 year old punk loving lodger and Julie (Elle Fanning), his 17 year old best friend and unrequited love object. With no particular driven plot angle, the film simply immerses the audience in to the confusion and excitement of being a teenager in the 1970s, as well as also being a coming of age tale for Dorothea who, being a pre-war child, is finding it harder and harder to connect with her young son in the age of such rapid social and cultural change. The film is charming, touching, melancholy and nostalgic in all of the most enjoyable ways. It is a narrative that portrays many well worn themes of the genre like virginity, sexuality, drug use, parental tension and internal conflict, but it explores these issues in such an interesting way through an unconventional ‘family unit’ that everything seems completely fresh and not at all tired.
The dialogue is sharp, witty and on many occasions full of meaning and message without being pretentious, it is easy to see why the picture picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. What is most impressive about the film is that although it uses Jamie and his coming of age as a starting point, what one really experiences over the course of two hours is that the concept of ‘coming of age’ can occur at any time in life, whether you are 15, 17, 24 or 55. Each of the main characters within the narrative goes on a real journey of self discovery, and the multigenerational angle of the picture makes it universally appealing and poignant to viewers of all ages, whether you are a teenager stepping out in to the mature world for the first time or a middle aged person trying to regain your balance as the social ground beneath your feet begins to shift.
Though the plot is far from aimless, it is certainly loose and unbound. Viewers who prefer their narrative structure to be concise and have a defined trajectory throughout may feel their patience being tested, but if you are somebody like me who relishes spending authentic feeling time with complex, well rounded, generally likeable characters, then the immersive spell of 20th Century Women will leave you feeling completely satisfied and rewarded.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, one of the initial draws of the film for me was the exceptional cast list, and not a single actor disappointed. As Jamie, Lucas Jade Zumann gives a fine performance as a young man trying to find his way amidst the differing and complicated paths that his varied female companions are laying out for him. In a physical sense, he is a much smaller, more authentic looking 15 year old than some of the 22 year olds that we see playing teens in most films, and this extra dose of realism really helps to ground the picture in believability and credibility. Elle Fanning, who I can now confidently state is the better Fanning, gives another great performance as Julie, the slighter older, vastly more sexually experienced object of Jamie’s affections. Fanning embodies that quintessential 70s girl aesthetic, harkening back to the likes of The Virgin Suicides and Foxes in both her physicality and her tendency towards melancholy.
As punk photographer Abbie, Greta Gerwig continues to build a strong, impressive catalogue of character performances. I will confess here that I absolutely hated Frances Ha, but ever since then Gerwig has given great performance after great performance, and Abbie’s sisterly yet mature relationship with Jamie, although not the most significant in the film, is arguably my favourite. My biggest praise, however, is reserved for Annette Bening as Dorothea, an endlessly complicated and multi-layered character who I think will take multiple viewings to truly understand. An older mother in a strikingly new age, Dorothea feels lost at sea with regards to her relationship with her son and the direction of her own life in general, and Bening expertly toes the line between maintaining an understanding ‘cool mom’ persona and succumbing to her anxieties and regrets in moments of quiet, lonely sadness. Though Dorothea clearly loves and cherishes her son, there are moments in the film where she can definitely be seen as the negative, damaging force in his life, and it is solely down to the deft touch of Annette Bening’s acting that the audience stays on her side even in the most testing of moments.
Overall, 20th Century Women is a wonderful comedy drama that presents a unique and multifaceted take on the traditional coming of age story. Usually only reserved for teenagers, the film presents a broad age range of stories with which to connect, helping us to see that no matter what age you are, there is always something to work through and figure out. I’m surprised to see a total absence of acting nominations from the Academy for this one, especially in Annette Bening’s case, but do not let the film’s lack of Oscar recognition dissuade you from seeing it in this busy cinematic period. It will be one of the best choices you make in the next month.