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20th Century Women – Movie Review

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20th Century Women – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures

In Beginners, director Mike Mills employed an eclectic style of filmmaking to tell a fairly small story with a minimal set of characters. With 20th Century Women, he expands to an ensemble cast and while some good ideas come through in this story about the rise of feminism in the 1970s, this group of characters starts to lose their charm after a while. Even with the great actors appearing on screen and the occasional witticism in the script, there is little to endear to these people and there is a detachment to the production that keeps one at a distance.

The strength of 20th Century Women comes more from the actors rather than the way the characters are written. The screenplay goes to great lengths to show their back story and yet there is still something empty about these people. There is a heavy forcefulness to some of the things they say. Mills’s cutesy direction does fit the setting at the start, but eventually feels like it’s trying too hard. The screenplay does have moments of inspiration. A scene at a dinner table that descends into unrelated tangents is one of the more humourous highlights of the picture. Annette Bening trying to make sense of the modern music scene also presents a funny sequence. That is what most of the film descends into: a series of comedic sketch scenes.

Bening as the head of this shared home manages to overcome the weakness in the character’s writing with a funny and deadpan performance. There is some level of sympathy for Dorothea and Bening has fun playing with her unconventional parental choices. Greta Gerwig tones down her usual acting tics, which grated on the nerves in last year’s Mistress America. In 20th Century Women, she is the most down to earth character, despite the bright red-dyed hair that instantly sets Abbie apart from everyone else. Elle Fanning completes the trio of central female characters, properly showing the growing cynicism that can come when one enters their teenage years.

It is fitting in a film titled 20th Century Women that the male characters are not quite as fascinating. Jamie has to compete with the women in his life and they do offer the more involving personalities. He likely exists as a blank slate, representing both Mills and somebody for the audience to project themselves onto. Nonetheless, Lucas Jade Zumann gives a solid performance. Billy Crudup, filling out the ensemble, portrays the most pointless character in the film. He is somebody who honestly could have been written out of the script and the story would not have been affected. One almost forgets William is there most of the time.

20th Century Women feels like a series of scenes interconnected by a loose plot. The screenplay attempts to give proper development to everyone and while the acting is certainly high quality, there is little drive to be invested in these characters and their futures. The frank sexual dialogue does provide some proper funny moments and Mike Mills captures the counterculture movement of the ‘70s in a story that is clearly autobiographical. However, what starts out vaguely interesting eventually tires by the time we reach the third act. On the positive side, Mills has quickly established a specific directorial style and vision for his projects and it will be good to see him apply that to better scripts that can sustain a full running time.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE

Stefan Ellison