20th Century Women

Review by Sophie Monks Kaufman @sopharsogood

Directed by

Mike Mills


Annette Bening Elle Fanning Greta Gerwig


We liked Beginners. We love Bening and Gerwig.


Patchy, but when it’s good it’s a consummate delight.

In Retrospect.

Mills’ perspective on formative relationships is absorbing, and he seems like a great guy.

Annette Bening anchors this delightful, deeply personal comedy-drama from writer/director Mike Mills

This is a film best understood as writer/director Mike Mills’ attempt to capture his childhood through a fictionalised shaggy-dog comedy drama. Describing it as anchored by reality doesn’t convey the freedom given over to a gifted ensemble and the resulting sparks of spontaneity that occasionally burst into a deliriously off-kilter form of humour.

The setting is sunny Southern California in 1979 and 16-year-old Jamie (Lucas Zumann) is surrounded by women. There’s his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend and long-term crush Julie (Elle Fanning) and their photographer lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig). In what appears to be a narrative kickstarter, Dorothea – fearing that her son needs more nurturing than she alone can give – gathers up Julie and Abbie around her kitchen table and asks the pair to join her in raising him.


What follows is the meandering process of Jamie spending time with these women in the hope that he might evolve from boy to man. Everyone’s life unfolds. Characters influence one another. Personal struggles are met with the attention of those in close proximity. These people irritate one another, argue and then let it go and move on. They try to have whole-hearted fun, even when it goes against their current mood.

This is a film with strengths and weaknesses bound up in the same straggly ball. The lack of clear structure affords fresh comedy that appears to come out of nowhere, but it also leads to nothing moments in which character dynamics seem anti-climactic.

More than anything, 20th Century Women is a gift to the actors who are able to swim around in roomy characters. Mills taps into new sides of Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig. The former is cast against milk-fed, flaxen-haired, innocent type as a recklessly promiscuous pursuer of a double life. Meanwhile Gerwig, who so naturally keeps things light, is saddled with a burden that cracks open a new type of vulnerability.

Juxtaposed against the dead weight of illness, her creative pursuits amount to a defiant life force; hair dyed red to emulate David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and comedy muscles fine-tuned to a serious pitch as she educates Jamie about clitoral stimulation via weighty feminist tones.

Matriarch of the film, Dorothea, is a muzzier proposition. She has defining habits (smoking, writing down the stocks, laser-focus on Jamie) but it’s harder to describe her qualities. Bening blows bohemian character material up as fully as possible, making for a colourful outline rather than a substantial presence. A generous mind would call her elusiveness an in-built component of a mother’s mystery. A speculative mind would call it Mills’ reverence for replicating all that remained unknown about his real mother.

The above is conjecture, but fidelity to life events truly intrudes on the freewheeling atmosphere in the form of synopses reducing the women’s futures to a few lines. It feels like 20th Century Women is one draft away from a balance between the source material and the fictional.

Published 7 Feb 2017

Tags: Annette Bening Elle Fanning Greta Gerwig Mike Mills


We liked Beginners. We love Bening and Gerwig.


Patchy, but when it’s good it’s a consummate delight.

In Retrospect.

Mills’ perspective on formative relationships is absorbing, and he seems like a great guy.

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From Bugsy to American Beauty and now 20th Century Women, the actor has always relished playing characters that ask us to look deeper.

Mike Mills: ‘Filmmaking isn’t therapy for me, I don’t cry on set’

By David Jenkins

The director of 20th Century Women discusses his personalised cine-poem written to his late mother.


By Michael Leader

Despite a stand-out performance from an old pro, Beginners keeps the audience at a distance.


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