SUNDAY TIMES - '20th Century Women': a piercing film about the weight of a mother's support
Sunday Times Entertainment By Tymon Smith, 2017-05-12 00:00:00.0

'20th Century Women': a piercing film about the weight of a mother's support

'20th Century Women', set in 1979, is an awkward, slyly hilarious and tender examination of motherhood.
Image: A24

Annette Bening blazes as a battling, boho mother writes Tymon Smith

It's a crying shame that Annette Bening has been nominated four times but never won an Oscar. It's even more outrageous that her performance in Mike Mills's 20th Century Women did not earn her a fifth nomination and a well- deserved victory.

As Dorothea, Bening plays a southern Californian single mother of a teenage son in 1979. It is an emotionally complex and empathetic performance.

She's helped by Mills's sensitive script and standout support from Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann in the role of the son in need of parenting.

Dorothea is an independent, bohemian, self-sufficient but sometimes lonely woman who still privately maintains some of the moral hangups of her Depression-era upbringing.

When she feels that her son Jamie is in need of guidance, which her personal experience prevents her from offering, she enlists the help of her photographer lodger Abbie (Gerwig) - recently relocated from the CBGB new wave scene in New York - and Jamie's best friend and unrequited love interest Julie (Fanning) to help give him the advice he needs to navigate the US in the dying days of the pre-Reagan era.

What follows is an awkward, often slyly hilarious and tender examination of the all too unexplored nature of relationships between mothers and sons.

With the overeager support of Abbie, who gives him books from her recently completed Feminism 101 course, Jamie soon finds himself getting beaten up by a fan of Black Flag after an argument at the skate park about clitoral stimulation, having a dinner table discussion about menstruation, and generally ending up more confused than he ever was.

As he did in his previous and also semi-autobiographical first feature, Beginners, Mills shows that he has an easy ability to direct actors and a deft ear for slightly precocious but believable dialogue. While some may argue that there is not enough dramatic tension or consequence in the story, there's a resounding ring of truth and endearing eccentricity to Mills' characters and situation. It makes it hard not to be touched and enchanted by their undeniably privileged but no less universal human predicaments.

WATCH the trailer for 20th Century Women

The use of a time-travelling voice-over, which tells us what will happen to each of the main characters beyond the world of the screen, is not a contrivance but a clever and effective device. It evokes the winsome, nostalgic tone in which we often look back on events with the 20/20 benefits of hindsight.

Ultimately 20th Century Women is a testament to the growing talents of Mills as a writer-director and a tribute to some of the finest actresses working on screen today.

It arrives just in time for those looking to offer something more thoughtful and meaningful than chocolates for Mother's Day.


• Love and loss go hand in hand in this funny, emotionally piercing story about a teenager and the women who raise him. — Manohla Dargis, The NYTimes

• An insightful and, on occasion, laugh-out-loud piece of filmmaking. Artfully shot and structured, while its warmth and wit shine brightly. — Will Lawrence, Empire

• A lovely, unfocused movie that acknowledges nostalgia but doesn't wallow in it. — Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic

This article was originally published in The Times.