20th century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills, is a film so full of life; the vibrant, messy, spontaneity of life. This is a film that juggles a deeply nuanced and unique set of characters who all feel so brilliantly explored and so wonderfully crafted. Though at times I found it to be oddly structured, there was something so magnetic about the experience of watching this film; one that felt freeing in how open and exploratory it was. I could go on gushing about this film, but I’d rather move onto the actual review where I can continue to do so, but also point out a few things that still nagged away at me. And so onto the review we go.
Dorothea Fields – played by Annette Benning – is worried that she is losing touch with her 15-year-old son, Jamie – played by Lucas Jade Zumann – and so she enlists the help of people she knows and trusts to help him find his way in life and not get swallowed up by the quickly changing times of the 70’s. Julie – played by Elle Fanning – Abbie – played by Greta Gerwig – and William – played by Billy Crudup – will all help shape the life of Jamie, while also discovering much about themselves and who they will become in a time period that was shifting wildly. This is a film where each of the characters will learn from each other and grow into new people by the time the credits roll.
It’s not often these days that I feel a film is able to introduce a varied set of characters and then also achieve a level of exploration and development that means everyone feels they got the time and attention they deserved. Well, 20th Century Women is a film that does just that. Each of the 5 main characters in this film (Dorothea, Jamie, Julie, Abbie and William) are all handled in a way that means they both feel like a part of the ensemble and also feel like their own specific part of the larger story. It is a balance that is hard to achieve, but this film does it brilliantly.
Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) and her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) seemed they were going to be the primary focus of the film at first. We explore the struggles that Dorothea is facing as she feels she’s not only losing touch with the changing landscape of the 70’s – general culture is leaving her behind – but she also feels she is losing her son to this changing age, whereas beforehand they were an inseparable team.
The film does an excellent job of exploring this split from both sides. We begin to see and understand just how lost Dorothea feels and at the same time we get to see things from Jamie’s perspective – how the world seems different and he wants to understand it and be a part of it and it isn’t through his mother for once that he can achieve that.
But then the interesting thing is that the film then pulls more people into this situation and while they are asked to help Jamie find who he is and who he will become, it is also themselves that they begin to learn about and help just as much as Jamie.
Everyone in this film intertwines with one another in a way that makes them all feel connected. They build from each other; learning and growing. They are a group of people who at this point in their lives seem to depend on one another and at the same time seem to want independence from other people’s ways of doing things – they want to discover their own path, but they just need someone to point them to where the path starts.
I began to look at this film like it was spinning plates (each character and some of the plot points being their own plate) and I think the film did a pretty good job of keeping them all going. Each character felt like they had ample time to grow in the film and fully develop into someone who I felt I understood and who I was eager to keep watching and learning about.
Now it of course didn’t always keep them spinning. There were times in the film where it felt like particular characters would disappear for elongated points of time, where they would then drift out of my immediate memory. They of course came back and the film continued along with them; thankfully never failing the character or their larger part in the film. But it was something that I noticed more than once.
20th Century Women is a film about life and just how challenging and full of questions it is (or at least that was one of the elements that I took from it) and I felt the interesting thing was, that the range of questions and struggles in life that the film chose to tackle was varied – much like the characters themselves.
Each character in the film is dealing with their specific issues and the film does an excellent job of broaching each issue in a way that feels natural and adding to the greater film. It never felt like one of them overshadowed the others, nor did it ever feel like the film got lost in a particular point. Everything feels balanced perfectly with everything else, which in turn offers a rewarding and fulfilling time with the film. The character begin to discover the answers that they’re looking for and you the audience get the reward of being there through it all, experiencing the hard times but coming out the other side knowing that it was all worth it.
It is both an experience where as a film watcher you get some wonderfully crafted characters within a compelling story, and you also feel satisfied that the experience you committed to was one that was very giving, in terms of content. Even if it didn’t all go the way you or the characters was exactly hoping for, there is still a sense of achievement, of furtherment, that then makes this film feels whole.
The only issue that stood out to me when it came to the main focuses of the film was the way in which it spoke about it. I found the dialogue to be unnatural at times. Feeling less like how normal people would talk and more like the philosophical musings of someone who’s intentionally trying to be fanciful about life and the world. It was distracting (thankfully not all the time) because this didn’t seem like how the characters would actually talk. It didn’t feel like their voice or their words in these moments.
But then, maybe it’s fair to attribute the out of touch dialogue with the time period in which the film is set. 20th Century Women is blessed with the backdrop of the 70’s. A time where things were changing; the music was different, it was louder, angrier. Fashion, general style was more expressive and free. The way people spoke and the ideas that they had were ones of being more open to things and exploring concepts that before were taboo. All of this and more is in this film and it utilises them to help explore the characters themselves. Abbie introduces Jamie to books and music that helps to expand his knowledge and shift his pre-conceived notions of the world. And these things are then also explored through Dorothea and William; two people who came after this new way of thinking and so they look to the new stuff to perhaps help them in their journey or in connecting with people they feel they’ve lost or are losing.
This is the great thing about this film is that it uses so much of the world and the people to then explore other parts of the world and other people. Themes are delved into and it is done in an inter-connecting way. Each part feeds into the other and helps build upon it. It all helps to create an experience that is fuller and better realised.
And when watching the film there was this weird feeling within me that it was wistful memories of a time long gone. Memories of important life changing times that are now looked back upon fondly. They were tough at the time but now looking back, it was clear that they were the times that helped shape you they became (in both good and bad ways). It’s hard to explain, but the general look of the film (at times) and the way in which it presents its story, makes this film feel like we’re peering into the memories of certain people and experiencing this very particular time thought their eyes. I may be completely wrong, but that was what it sometimes felt like to me. Either way, it added this oddly alluring sensation to the film.
20th Century Women is a film where you are enveloped in the characters and their lives over its 2 hour span. Their strong, unique identities only strengthen and your connection to them does the same as well. With what the film focuses on and how it visually presents particular moments; this film ended up feeling like a hypnotic ride of discovery and meaningful development.
I am absolutely recommending 20th Century Women. I think there’s something for everyone in this film – male, female, young and old. This film has a lot to say and it does so in such a potent, standout way. Find the time and enjoy this film, especially during a time in which the large, empty blockbusters are filling the cinemas.
Do you have any thoughts on the film or my review? If so, feel free to leave them in the comments down below. I’d love it if you could give my blog a follow and also my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings – as that way you’ll always know when I post something new (if you’re interested that it). Either way, I still want to finish with saying thank you and I hope to see you return.