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20TH CENTURY WOMEN Is Alive With Insight and Emotion (Review)

20TH CENTURY WOMEN Is Alive With Insight and Emotion (Review)

One of the most jarring epiphanies in teendom comes when you realize your parents are not just parents, but people. When your perception of the world expands to understand this, you’re challenged to see your parents’ motivations, passions, and flaws. And for many of us, this moment comes when we’re pushing back to be seen as more than their kid who needs protecting, and as a person passionate and flawed in our own right. And this tender tension sits at the center of Mike Mills‘ latest, 20th Century Women.

Mills, who wrote and directed the bittersweet Thumbsucker and the spirited Beginners, pulls from his own childhood to spin the story of 15-year-old Jamie (a mop-topped and moving Lucas Jade Zumann) and the women who raised him during a pivotal summer in 1979 Santa Barbara. Crowned in grey and gloriously casual curls, Annette Bening gives one of the most full-bodied and stirring portrayals of the year as Jaime’s 55-year-old single mom Dorothea, a child of the Depression who wants her son to be good, evolved, and happy. Fearing that his absentee dad has left a void in his life, Dorothea rejects bringing in some sloppy substitute father figure, and instead calls on her free-spirited tenant Abbie (a magenta-haired and mesmerizing Greta Gerwig) and Jaime’s best friend/unrequited crush Julie (a heavy-eyed and heartstring-tugging Elle Fanning) as parenting support. However well-intentioned, this unconventional plan rattles the household dynamic, pushing Jaime to rebel with rock shows and runaway excursions. But with each push and conflict, mother and son take another unsteady step toward seeing each other outside their parent-child bond.

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This setup might sound ripe for histrionics and melodrama. But that’s never been Mills’ style. True to its California vibe, 20th Century Women‘s tone is chill, making its moments of joy and pain all the sharper in contrast. Mills’ script delves into the delicate humor of being human, offering awkward moments like Jaime’s failed attempts to seduce Julie, and an uncomfortable party where budding feminism and frank discussion of sex and menstruation take center stage.

The simple story is enriched by digressions that leap back to the birth year of characters. In voiceover, Jaime or Dorothea reflect on how events like the Great Depression, the rise of punk rock, or the luxury of boredom have shaped their loved ones. Stark black and white archival footage splashes across the screen, clashing with Sean Porter’s enchanting and summery cinematography. But this plays well into the crashing realizations each flashback represents. It’s that moment where you look at static history, and discover how it’s shaped by those around you, and by extension, perhaps yourself.

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20th Century Women is about a mother and son looking across the Generation Gap and trying to reconnect with each other, not as family but as people. Mills explores this theme with a vibrant empathy and warm wit. Then he expands this broader, urging Jamie and Dorothea–and by extension the audience–to see all the people in their lives through this wider lens. He accompanies Abbie to a formative doctor’s visit. She opens up about her failed marriage to her other tenant, a mustachioed and eccentric mechanic (Billy Crudup, barrel-chested yet loose and lively). Characters grow more complex, more fascinating, more lovable, in part because of a humane script, in part because of an excellent ensemble alive with vulnerability in each frame. And in this way, Mills manages to capture the complicated yet fragile beauty found in life through his willfully meandering but undeniably engulfing drama.

4 out of 5 burritos

4 burritos

 

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