Set in 1979, against the backdrop of Santa Barbara boarding house, Annette Bening plays Dorothea, the owner of the house and a progressive single mother who struggles to raise her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). When her liberal approach to parenting fails to connect with him she enlists the help of two younger women living in the building; Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a 20-something photographer who is recovering from cervical cancer, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie's confused and promiscuous best friend. Dorothea asks them to enlighten Jamie and when their influences on him become too liberal (even to her standards) she finds herself faced with her own personal demons while struggling to cut the apron strings of their mother/son relationship.
There is something immediately personal about 20th CENTURY WOMEN and it is not surprising to learn that the film is semi-autobiographical. The overarching narrative, while at times bewildering, is told with conviction and the characters are given their own invaluable backstories, giving the story depth and complexity. The strength of Mill's writing lies in his familiarity with the era and his casual pacing of the plot. He has placed his characters in an era where he seems comfortable, and with a well-placed soundtrack and a retro-centric ambience he explores the coiled relationships with earnestness and good humour.
Annette Bening's performance as Dorothea is quite possibly the best of her career. She invests in the character with all that she's got and adopts mannerisms and traits that we haven't seen from her before. Mills capitalises on the vulnerability within her expression with well-placed close ups and a lingering camera, and with an equal measure of experience and nativity Bening takes Dorothea on a journey of self discovery which progresses as she lives vicariously through the lives of others.
Her co-stars are excellent too and make for one of the year's most dynamic ensembles. Lucas Jade Zumann gives a wonderfully understated performance as the film's focal character, Jamie. I spent the entire film watching him while trying to place his face. I knew him from something I had seen recently and I was sure he was good in whatever that was. It wasn't until I got home from the cinema that I realised that he had played Gilbert Blythe in the recent Netflix series ANNE WITH AN E (a praise-worthy adaptation of Anne of Green Gables). These two performances couldn't be any more contrasting, nor any better. His turn in 20th CENTURY WOMEN is effortless and as equally vulnerable as Benings... and given that his character is the focal point of the story it irritates me that Mills chose a title that solely draws attention away from this crux.
Elle Fanning gives another exceptional performance as the dispositioned best friend who struggles to express herself and has a desperate need for nurture. With this film adding to a line up of titles including THE NEON DEMON, TRUMBO and LIVE BY NIGHT Fanning is fast becoming one of the most impressive female actors of her generation. In fact her demeanour as Julie in 20th CENTURY WOMEN had me recalling her performance in Francis Ford Coppola's 2011 film TWIXT. It was a poorly received horror film that failed to make an impression (although I enjoyed it) but it also showcased her undeniable talent and foreshadowed the sort of performer she would become. In many ways her sunken and melancholic demeanour in that film has found its way into this one.
Greta Gerwig lends solid support as the recovering cancer survivor who has yet to fully process the weight of her ordeal. She seeks solace in fantasy and adheres to the rise of feminism, and Gerwig's performance is both tenacious and vulnerable. She turns to a fellow housemate, William (Billy Crudup) for comfort. He is a mysterious gentleman drifter who is ever present and willing to impart friendly advice when sought. Crudup play the role with the reliable composure that he instills in most of his characters. He is great, as always.
20th CENTURY WOMEN is Mike Mill's best work to date, and it oozes sincerity. His script is smart, heartfelt and very funny – and deserving of its 2016 Oscar nomination. Think of a less-melodramatic Cameron Crowe film and you will have an understanding of what to expect. Let me reaffirm that the title sorely misrepresents the film, and even though it does makes sense in relating to certain themes of the story, it certainly doesn't encapsulate the greater narrative. This is a highlight of the year for me so far and I cannot recommend it enough.