Film Review: 20th Century Women

1970S-SET DRAMEDY IS A SERIES OF WARM, WITTY MOMENTS THAT FAIL TO COME TOGETHER

The grandiose title of Mike Mills’ dramedy is dual-purpose. It pokes fun at the intimacy of its portrait of a pseudo family, while acknowledging the specificity of its portrayal of women. Set in 1979, when second wave feminism was becoming mainstream, three women of different ages are grappling with gender, power and connection.

Bening is sensational as Dorothea, a 50-something single mother whose parenting philosophy is overprotective in a way unique to the bohemian bourgeoisie. Resistant to discipline but paranoid about the lack of a father figure in her teen son Jamie’s life, Dorothea entreats her tenants – sensitive 20-something photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and womanising woodworking hippie William (Billy Crudup) – as well as Jamie’s precocious best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), to spiritually guide him through male adolescence. The misguided tactic is only accidentally successful.

The three women are beautifully situated in time. Abbie finds an outlet for her alienation in the punk scene, where Talking Heads fans and Black Flag fans are at war. The new availability of contraception allows Julie to have sexual experiences, but they’re far from empowering. Characters loan each other Our Bodies Ourselves, and references to ’70s psychology abound in witty conversations defined by disaffection.

As always, Mills’ work is always very stylised; there are whimsical montages of photos and memories, and even glimpses into the future of his characters. However, the style does seem to come at the expense of structure. There’s no plot, and the film feels like many wonderful, often hilarious moments clumsily patchworked together.

Given the impressive intellectual and cultural insight of certain scenes, the narrative aimlessness is frustrating, as emotion is built only to dissipate. Overall, 20th Century Women is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

 

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