(Photo via A24 Pictures)
It is a bit of a travesty that Annette Benning was not nominated for her performance in 20th Century Women. It’s not only the best performance I’ve seen from any actor in the past year, but it’s the best performance she’s ever given. Benning’s humility and humor help carry Mike Mills’s poignant and magnificent 20th Century Women, a film that’s unfortunately been looked over for this year’s Oscars (save for Mills’s Best Original Screenplay nomination). The project is a deeply personal one for Mills, similar to his last film Beginners, in that this film is semi-autobiographical about his time growing up in Santa Barbara, California with his mother. The result is a love letter not only to mothers but to all women who helped raise and create the men we are today. My review of 20th Century Women.
Annette Benning plays Dorthea, a single mother raising her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979 Santa Barbara. She tries to understand and raise her son during the emerging punk music scene (Talking Heads, Suicide, Devo) with the help of Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and Dorthea’s tenant’s William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig).
20th Century Women was produced by Megan Ellison, who’s arguably the best film producer we have today. Her production company Anapurna Pictures (which will soon become a distributor as well), and she’s responsible for getting some of the decade’s very best films into theaters (The Master, Her, Foxcatcher, Everybody Wants Some!!, etc.), and this film is among the very best that Ellison has produced yet. I’m so happy that she’s now able to distribute her own films, starting with Kathryn Bigelow’s newest film later on in the year.
20th Century Women wears its gender politics proudly on its sleeve, which is what makes the film so appealing and engrossing. Greta Gerwig’s Abbie is a punk rock feminist whose history in the film involves her going to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings, and Elle Fanning’s Julie is also a very strong and free-spirited feminist who’s trying to find her place in the world without much help from her estranged mother but with the help of this mixed set of characters in the film.
Billy Crudup does some of his best work as a tenant of Dorthea’s who tries to help with raising Jamie in all of this. And the actor who plays Jamie is really terrific in the role. Zumann portrays Jamie as a vulnerable and strong young man that’s still trying to find his place in the world and the women in his life help lead him in the right direction. He’s fun, he’s energetic, and he’s compassionate, similar to all the women in his life.
Sean Porter’s cinematography work on this film is really terrific in showcasing a post-hippie 1970’s California, and how the punks are starting to overtake the hippies in this universe. Mills does a fantastic job as a director in portraying these people during a very interesting time for not only the culture but for our country. The energy crisis, Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence”, etc. The world is about to become very strange for everybody after 1979, and Mills’s portrayal of this era through a killer punk soundtrack and terrific performances is quite remarkable.
Throughout most of the film, I was in tears watching it. I think I felt this way because the lives of Jamie and his mother somewhat parallel my life and the life of my mother. Dorthea is roughly the same age my mother was when I was 15, and it was during this time (which is still ongoing) that I was able to get by and get through life through the help of my mother and strong women in my life. I had this powerful of an emotional reaction to 20th Century Women because this movie was just as personal to Mike Mills as it was to me watching as an audience member and as a critic.
It’s for this reason that 20th Century Women was the best film of 2016. Even better than La La Land, folks. You might not feel the same way about 20th Century Women if/when you see it (which I highly recommend you do), but this movie felt incredibly personal and relatable to my life and my past that I nearly broke down in tears toward the end of the film. If/when you go see this film, do it thinking about all the women that helped make you the person you are today. Without my mother or any of the women that I’ve come across in my life (even the heartbreakers), I wouldn’t be the man or writer that I am today without them, and for that reason I’m eternally grateful for all of you (hopefully you’re reading this review).