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Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann in the film "20th Century Women." Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Movie review: ‘20th Century Women’ is honest and heartwarming

When I saw the preview for “20th Century Women” while waiting for “La La Land” to begin, I was drawn in. I was hooked at the notion of an independent women and comedy-drama, humor is my favorite coping mechanism and strong women rule the world.  

Set in Southern California in 1979, “20th Century Women” tells the story of Dorothea (Annette Bening) a mother in her 50’s raising her fifteen-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in an eccentric household with their two tenants. William (Billy Crudup) is the house renovator and Dorothea’s attempt at a father figure for Jamie, of little to no avail.  Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a twenty-something punk rocker and photographer, a mirror of the modern woman Dorothea was in her youth.  Then there is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend, who is not a permanent resident of the house, but nonetheless she sneaks in each night for Jamie’s companionship, and only his companionship, after seeking much more than that with other boys.

Dorothea worries that she is losing touch with guiding Jamie into the man she would like him to be, and enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help shape Jamie. However it quickly becomes apparent that Jamie is not the only one in the house struggling to find his place in the world — and in fact he may be adapting the best.  

The film manages to capture the grit of everyday life within changing times while at the same time adding just enough quirk for it to be funny and never too serious. The backdrop of southern California in 1979 juxtaposes sunny days with the inner, cloudier struggles of the characters, while providing a setting that embraces cultural changes quickly.  Popular culture references dot the film — from punk rock music and a clip Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, to photos of the black and white WWII America Dorothea grew up in. These references evoke powerful feelings of how the world often seems to evolve faster than its people.

Director and writer Mike Mills has created women that, as the title suggests, truly stand out. Annette Bening’s portrayal of a woman trying to raise her son in a world she doesn’t fully understand is poetic. Dorothea is a woman of few words, but those she delivers offer both the funniest and most profound moments of the movie.  Each line has power.  She is in no way extraneous.  

Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning offer two striking, but different portrayals of a young woman coming to terms with their sexuality in a new way than in the past. Their performances jive to create two great, but opposite effects on Jamie, the girl he wants, but can’t have, and the one who teaches him so much, like an older sister.
“20th Century Women” offers a comforting view that we as people are paradoxical and messy, and we will remain messy.  It does not shy away from the truth in any way.  Not overdramatic and employing just the right amount of awkward humor to make the viewer laugh, “20th Century Women” offers a real look at the lives of 20th century women.  

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