Now on Blu-ray: The Beautiful Generational Portrait of ’20th Century Women’

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20th Century Women

In the opening scene of Mike Mills20th Century Women, Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) are shopping in a quaint Santa Barbra shopping center when they’re witness to their family car engulfed in flames in the parking lot. In a typical film, this might lead the characters into a moment of despair, left wondering around the flames how they’d get around. But in 20th Century Women, the destruction of the car leads to a tangent about the history of the car and how the role it played in the lives of the characters – moments personal and cultural surround the existence of the automobile and shapes the lives of these characters. Therein lies the beauty and power of 20th Century Women as Mills understands how our lives, our personalities are molded by the events, large and small, that surround our lives.

The story of the film centers on Dorothea, a single mother, who oversees her home full of characters in the late ‘70s. Living with Dorothea and Jamie are Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk rock loving artist with a knack for photography, and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman with plenty of hippie-like beliefs about the world. Like any mother, she’s concerned about her son and enlists the help of Abbie and Julie (Elle Fanning), a rebellious young woman that Jamie is in love with, to help him become a good man. Jamie learns about the world through these women, with Abbie introducing him to various punk bands and feminist literature while Julie reluctantly shows the young man that no woman is forced to reciprocate love. Dorothea must confront the fact that her son is growing up and learning about the world in ways that she’s not entirely sure are best and there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Dorothea is one of the most unique characters to ever grace the screen and Annette Bening gives one of the finest performances of her career as the unusual mother. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that Bening wasn’t even nominated at the Oscars for her stellar performance. There’s a caustic wit to Dorothea and sense of exploration. To better understand the culture of her son, Dorothea spends time with William listening to Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” Bening awkwardly tries to dance to the angst-riddled punk rock to no avail. Eventually, Dorothea gives the Talking Heads a shot and finds it much more suited to her tastes. Then there comes that moment where Dorothea realizes that the generational split between her and her son is something that isn’t going away. It’s a beautiful moment where she realizes that she’ll never see her son in the wild as he truly is. She’ll always see him in a restrained manner. It’s a heartbreaking realization and yet there’s a warmth that Bening brings to this moment of understanding.

Mike Mills provides a depth to each character that is rarely seen in movies. Throughout 20th Century Women, the film takes the audience into the lives of each of the film’s lead quintet. In looking back at these characters’ lives, Mills finds the events that shape these people. It could be a moment of pop culture, a romance that flourished and faded, or a historical event that left them with a profound effect. Mills understands that there’s no single path to defining an individual and it’s an accumulation of experiences that mold a person into who they’ll be for the rest of their lives. There’s a profound beauty to the characters of 20th Century Women and how we’re pulled into their lives.

Among the special features on the Blu-ray of 20th Century Women are audio commentary by writer-director Mike Mills and two documentary featurettes, one on the making of the film and one on the cast of the film. Mills is extremely open about the personal nature of the film, the time, the setting, the cultural aspects, and the women that have greatly influenced his own life. At the same time, Mike Mills is also aware that there’s a universal aspect to his film that transcends its setting and is willing to explore these themes.

Having seen 20th Century Women a number of times now, the film gets better and better with each viewing. For me, this movie is a cinematic warm blanket, absolutely comforting in its empathetic beauty. 20th Century Women was among the best films released in 2016 and boasts an incredible soundtrack. More than anything, this movie understands people and culture in a way that few works of art are able to capture.

20th Century Women
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

A beautiful and moving portrait of generational differences, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is one of 2016’s finest works of cinema that gets better with repeat viewings.

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