20th Century Women: Mother and son’s rocky road

June 2, 2017


20th Century Women (M)

Rating: 3 / 5


If existential angst fascinates you, then 20th Century Women is your kind of film.

Director Mike Mills claims that 20th Century Women is equally a love letter to his mother and a story about the ‘greatest generation’ meeting ‘Generation X’—referring to the bond between his own mother, born in the 1920s and himself as a child of the 1960s.

Set in the summer of 1979, the film examines the relationship between 55-year-old single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) as she grapples with maintaining a connection with her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). She has a number of individualistic tenants living in her house, including free-spirited punk artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and provocative teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), with hippie handyman Willliam (Billy Crudup) providing the testosterone element.

Bening gives a fine and multi-layered performance as Dorothea, and unlike others of her movie generation, is happy to be seen with the wrinkles and experience that most of us wear on our faces after the age of 50. She has one of the most expressive faces on film and gives an honest portrayal of her dilemma in how to raise her son, feeling that she is losing her connection with him, which leads to her becoming rather overpowering and treating him more like a partner than a son.

With a degree of self-awareness, Bening realises she needs some help in raising Jamie, and enlists the assistance of the quirky tenants to influence the teenager. Julie has already been friends with Jamie since they were young children, and generally sleeps in the same bed as him, regarding him as too good a friend to be intimate with, saving that side of her teenage life for boys she doesn’t care about. While I found that sad, it does give an interesting portrayal of the very intimate non-sexual relationship between the teenagers.

Abbie and William have their own challenging back stories, especially Abbie, and she does a fine line in existential angst. As a defiant feminist, she is determined to bring out into the open matters that at the time would have been discussed in hushed tones and not in mixed company. The dinner party scene with the group of tenants will evoke different reactions from viewers—some will find it funny while 
others will regard it as inappropriate.

While all the performances are brilliant, the film does meander along, and is very text-heavy, as characters explore at great length their inner psychology during a period when society was changing. One thing that modern audiences may find disconcerting is the constant smoking—it seems that every occasion calls for a cigarette.

For me, the most interesting part of the film is the final voice-over by Jamie, telling us exactly what happened to each character—and it’s a lot more conventional and happy than you might expect. 


Highlight: a tour de force performance from Annette Bening
Red flag: coarse language, adult themes and mild sex scenes


Tags: Salvation Army Australia

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