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Movie Review: 20th Century Women


20th Century Women is the story of a teenage boy and the three women who help raise him, set in Southern California in 1979. The comedy drama comes to us from the mind of writer-director Mike Mills, best known for Beginners and Thumbsucker, and plays out like an adaptation of an essay on gender history. Together with a solid ensemble featuring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann and Billy Crudup, Mills is able to curate an offbeat, moody, nostalgic and thoughtful film.

It's as if Mike Mills was inspired by the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, a music drama romance that saw Francis McDormand trying to be a good mother to her budding rock journalist son. Set during a similar time, McDormand's character tries to raise her teenage son over the phone while he tours with an emerging rock band. It's this fascinating tension between the political evolution of women in society and the impact this has on the concept of traditional mothering for a single parent.

The correlation between Almost Famous and 20th Century Women is further evidenced by the casting of Billy Crudup, who serves as a connector having acted in both. However, Mills isn't simply trying to do a rinse-and-repeat. The focus is on family and gender evolution, as we examine an unconventional cluster of relationships. While Bening is the kingpin as an eccentric mother, we get two equally complex characters in a 20-something art school oddball played by Greta Gerwig and a free-spirited teen by Elle Fanning.

20th Century Women

"You're going to miss this... one day."

The film plays out in a similar manner to Dazed & Confused, delivering mood, style and generating some spark from relational interplay between the "family" members over a driving story. As a coming-of-age drama, it's enjoyable for the character mix and spirited performances from a strong cast. The easy-going state of affairs gives it a nostalgic mood as we're given a tour of what was going on in America at the time in terms of pop culture and politics.

Bening's cool performance is laissez faire (with terms and conditions) to the point that her sensible and sensitive son feels the need to keep her in check. He's just being a kid and Zumann delivers a likable, innocent and mature performance much like a young Anton Yelchin. Gerwig is almost unrecognisable with a whole new stripped down punk look and plenty of cold moxie, while Fanning gives the girl next door a seething and paradoxical sincerity.

Mills isn't trying to reinvent Cameron Crowe, but also leverages some nostalgic music from the age to set the '70s scene, moving from Talking Heads to Black Flag, only to settle on the old classic, As Time Goes By. 20th Century Women feels like an adaptation of an tertiary level essay, delivering commentary through its characters and taking the time to excavate each of their back stories like mini profiles. The net result is an entertaining, unconventional and meandering comedy drama that rides on the strength of its characters and performances. It's not quite as polished as coming-of-age gems like Almost Famous or The Way, Way Back, or as loosely knit as Dazed & Confused, but manages to own its space with flair.

The bottom line: Spirited