20th Century Women Screen 85 of 17 reviews

20th Century Women

2016

20th Century Women Poster
  • A refreshingly rich and intelligent female-led drama. It’s also a poignant character study that draws first-rate performances from its cast. If Mills intended to make a film about his own youth, the result is a story about the lives of women, the challenges of parenthood, the value of art and a recent past that now seems unreachable.

  • ++

    Sight & Sound: Molly Haskell
    February 03, 2017 | March 2017 Issue (pp. 25-28)

    In the rollout of Oscar contenders at the end of 2016, the unsung hero was 20th Century Women. Or should I say heroine, since a captivating Annette Bening is the beating heart at the centre of this gloriously unclassifiable movie by Mike Mills... Although Bening reigns supreme, Mills zigzags through time and his characters' lives with a messy amplitude that is downright (dare I say it?) Renoiresque. Everyone has his reasons, everyone has her say.

  • This film is said to be partly autobiographical. This explains, I think, why so many aspects that could feel precious or glibly symbolic in other contexts come across here as lived-in and effortlessly wise.

  • The entire ensemble cast of characters, male and female, are of near-equal significance and the actors who play them are flawless. Yet the film still clearly belongs to Dorothea and Bening, who even in 30 years of too-infrequent, sublime performances, does career-best work here as the independent but lonely 55-year-old single mother, whose every expression, every gesture is honest, revealing, heartbreaking.

  • For a memoirist, Mr. Mills is uncommonly generous. Abbie, Julie and William, who sexily floats around the periphery (Mr. Crudup is superb at not quite stealing his scenes), are so persuasively detailed that all three could spin off into a separate movie; each has both sting and tenderness nearing grace. Yet these three and even Jamie pale next to Dorothea, who’s satisfyingly complex, especially for a movie mother.

  • Despite its modest trappings, 20th Century Women reveals itself to be a surprisingly ambitious, freewheeling exploration of a precipice moment—a vision of the histories and futures that lie on either side and the unalterable fact of them. And though it may at times feel a touch obvious or easy (such as in the soaring final images), it’s clear-eyed enough to recognize that insufficiency. After all, was “As Time Goes By” ever anything but bleak?

  • Mills is a hell of a writer. That was evident in his second feature, "Beginners," where Christopher Plummer gave an Oscar-winning performance as a father who came out of the closet at age 75. "Beginners" was about Mills' father; "20th Century Women" is about his mother. Together the films form bookend narratives of love, tribute and elegy.

  • Far from pushing a plot along here, Bening is flagging a vibrant inner life, fleshing out the conflicted psyche of a woman torn between being a creature of her time, transcending it, and thinking for herself amid the clouds of smug self-definition that swirl around her. It’s an intricate, endlessly dynamic performance; in an industry when actresses Bening’s age get to choose between playing dotty old ladies or gorgon mothers-in-law—or bow out altogether—Dorothea is a gift that keeps on giving.

  • The film’s built-in sentimentality put me in the same position as the masses of women who embraced Beaches in 1988 or Stepmom in 1998. Cinematic melodrama is no longer as mass, and to be taken seriously it has become artier. As melodrama for men, 20th Century Women reminds the middle-aged that they once evolved, and introduces younger men to feminism at mom’s knee.

  • Sentimental on paper, 20th Century Women’s central conceit is executed with grace and wit. The characters orbit each other at just the right moment, influencing and shattering preconceptions about identity, personality and desire. The young vigorously break free of the bubble, while the old continue to subvert from within. That’s life, a constant renovation.

  • Mills employs a distinctive cinematic strategy to evoke his rediscovery of past times, slowly moving the camera in toward the action or back from the action with a rhythmic regularity, as if retreating into memory or bringing memory forward... [But] Mills’s world is certainly not devoid of pain, but it’s leached of bitterness, leached of conflict, leached of aggression, leached of hostility; the pain and the trauma are leached of consequence.

  • It is the performances that ultimately ground the film, particularly that by Bening—a marvelous piece of work that deserves all the awards buzz coming to it. The actress presides over the movie with a matriarch’s grand conviction that her way is the right way, while also displaying a mischievous streak (you can see it on the edges, in the insouciant way she drags on her cigarettes, and in the offhand invitations to dinner that she extends to strangers) that keeps her open to trying new things.

  • Quite enjoyed this as the semi-autobiographical collage Mills offers—one in which Beginners' closeted dad never appears, ceding the spotlight to the director's apparently quite remarkable mother. Bening's performance, perhaps necessarily, is more grounded and less galvanizing than was Mary Page Keller's, but you can clearly see that it's the same woman, freed from the chafing that had defined her marriage.

  • Mills’s screenplay is estimable in its wisdom: The filmmaker doesn’t depict his former teenage self as a neurotic victim of outsized personality-sculpting, but rather as blessed witness to a handful of extraordinary women—and the film does its work in making their personalities sparkle.

  • The film mainly overcomes its flaws through the sheer imaginative sensitivity of Mills’s writing. There is an accumulation of convincing character detail here that winds up being very moving in some of the later scenes between Dorothea and Jamie.

  • All of Mills’s aesthetic ornamentation begins to feel like a distraction from a void at the film’s center. Bening’s usual register—bemused, ironic detachment—is not conducive to bringing a character like Dorothea, marred by an inability to communicate with her son, to life.

  • Despite the movie's title and Bening's central role, women are oddly peripheral. Their misfortunes become Jamie's incidental gain. Fretting over the emotional state of her son after he sat in a waiting room while Abbie received devastating medical news, Dorothea praises his valor. "I'm fine. I learned a lot," he reassures her, acing one more test in an easy-A class.

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