Film Review – Twentieth Century Women

Mike Mills wrote and directed this wonderful film about a teenage boy’s tutelage in life by the women around him. I found it to be very low-key but powerfully moving, about human connection and communication of values in a changing world that sometimes seems alien and hostile in its modernity. It made me laugh out loud several times as well as shed a tear or two.

California, 1979, is the setting for a rooming house run by Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) who, as a single mother, is concerned about her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) being a well-rounded person. She enlists the help of two other, younger women, punky lodger Abby (Greta Gerwig) and neighborhood girl Julie (Elle Fanning), to help teach him good values and how to be a man, from a woman’s perspective. There is a lot of discussion about feelings and trying to comprehend a social landscape that is fraught with miscommunication, and every character is multidimensional and complex.

The tone of the film is very quiet and contemplative with a score that is melancholic as well as bright and sunny, creating an almost ephemeral atmosphere that carries a strong nostalgic charge. Throughout the film I was haunted by the feeling of the present always precariously balanced between a past that is often misremembered and a future that seems frightening and chaotic. It’s a feeling I got from Hell or High Water as well, that sense of the world maybe having moved on from the principles you’ve founded your life upon and what that may mean for the future. It feels very much like a love-letter to the 20th century and something to mark a time and way of thinking that seems endangered by the reactionary culture of today, but I imagine that sentiment could be applied to any period, really, and that might just be the point of the movie.

I thought the performances all around were perfect. In addition to Benning’s authentic portrayal, Greta Gerwig turns in a quietly accomplished performance as the tough but fair late 20th century punk rock feminist, Elle Fanning is intriguing as the complicated Julie who Benning’s teenage son is infatuated with, and Billy Crudup as handyman William brings a relaxed charm. A great cast of actors who work really well together, I felt.

I found the film cast a spell on me from the start that kept me fully invested in all the emotions and intelligence at play. There are some very astute observations made throughout the film, but it also manages to be very funny with more than a couple of scenes where I found myself laughing out loud. It’s a really beautifully balanced portrait of a time and a place and a philosophy whose spirit one hopes is still with us. I’m very glad I saw it and recommend it for anyone who wants to better comprehend the multitude of perspectives that make up the world.

Watch the trailer here.