Movie Review: ’20th CENTURY WOMEN’ – boys don’t cry


Preston Barta // Editor

Rated R, 118 minutes.
Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Annette BeningLucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup

Writer-director Mike Mills’ remarkable 2010 film Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, was a comedy-drama loosely based on the filmmaker’s own father who came out of the closet in the later years of his life. Now Mills directs his pen and camera at his mother’s story for another wonderfully wrought, fictionalized tale.

20th Century Women, like Beginners, unfolds in the past tense. Through Mills’ inventive use of narration and imagery (pictures and archival footage), we observe a work of art that is a cross between innovative filmmaking and a profound video essay about being a sensitive teenager growing up during a time of cultural change and rebellion.

It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, California. Artsy bands like the Talking Heads were freeing airwaves for the developing punk scene, the waning days of the Carter administration was paving the road for the Reagan era, and people were becoming obsessed with material consumption.

It’s an interesting and transformative time — a statement especially true for single mother Dorothea Fields (an enchanting Annette Bening).

At 55, Dorothea is beginning to take notice that her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is turning into someone she no longer recognizes. He’s spending more time with his teen buddies and getting into the sort of trouble that’s hard to walk back from. This instills a sense of fear in Dorothea that her single status and older age as a parent is keeping her from giving Jamie the attention he needs to make smart, informed decisions as a young man.

In hopes of a solution, Dorothea introduces Jamie to William (Billy Crudup), an eccentric handyman who does work around Dorothea’s fixer-upper in exchange for a bed to sleep in. However, the potential role model is not quite on the same wavelength as Jamie, which leads Dorothea to call upon the help of two younger women to monitor his development: Abbie (Greta Gerwig, in top form), a ruby-haired photographer by trade and a lodger in Dorothea’s house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend and crush, who sneaks into his room during the night to escape her structured life.

2016’s best ensemble can be found in 20th Century Women. Courtesy of A24.

Though on paper this seems like a lot of plot to keep up with, Mills’ observational and anecdotal style of filmmaking makes it easy for viewers to follow and invest in. It also helps that each of the characters feel plucked out of real life — causing one to feel saddened when the movie’s over, because they form such a tangible family by the end.

What ultimately elevates 20th Century Women above most of the material that came out the cinematic gates in 2016 (the film opened in New York and Los Angeles in December to qualify for an awards run) is its exploration of new themes in film.

One such topic comes from Jamie spending time with all these women and identifying with the complications of being a man with a feminine side. And if history has taught us anything about men, it’s that they gain their identity and self-worth through status. In a world where men pressure one another to shoulder responsibility, many men fear the perception of sensitivity. In their minds it shows signs of deficiency, being overly emotional or feminine.

There’s a moment in 20th Century Women where Jamie has a conversation with one of his friends about how to satisfy a woman sexually. While his friend speaks of personal victories and concentrates solely on the pleasure he receives from the act itself, Jamie counters with the idea that sex is a two-way street, and the conversation devolves into a fight.

Mills is an exceptional filmmaker who creates works built with genuine mood and feeling. Even without knowing it’s semi-autobiographical, viewers can clearly see it comes from an honest and personal place that could appeal to anyone — and not just those who connect with Jamie, but people from all walks of life.

At times, 20th Century Women is a crowd-pleaser, while at other times it’s not shy at tugging at your heartstrings to ignite the waterworks. It manages to hit all the beats of life in an enlightening fashion. Whether it’s discussions about how questioning one’s happiness is a shortcut to depression or having your heart broken to learn about the world, this is a film that informs, educates and entertains.

Grade: A+

20th CENTURY WOMEN opens in limited release on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.