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20th Century Women

20th Century Women

Released 10 February 2017
Director Mike Mills

Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
Writer(s) Mike Mills

Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, Youree Henley
Origin United States
Running Time 119 minutes
Genre Comedy, drama
Rating 16

The female of the species.

If you’ve ever read around the subjects of film theory, feminism or a combination of the two then no doubt you’ve come across The Bechdel Test, in which films are judged by the following criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man. Although I admire the sentiment behind Bechdel’s test, I have always found it a little too simplistic to be particularly useful when judging the relative feminist merits of a film. While it makes an excellent point about the representation of women in film (which is still a sad state of affairs), it fails to take into account that the act of women talking about men may tell us more about the women themselves than it does about the men in question. Or indeed, that it is entirely possible to remain a feminist while discussing one’s latest crush.

20th Century Women is a film that understands this fact completely. Although the three women come together via their relationships with a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood, the beautifully observed characterisation means that these women are neither ciphers nor sidekicks. The women in question are fifty-five year old single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), her twenty-something lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and seventeen year old tearaway Julie (Elle Fanning). As Dorothea’s son Jamie (Luca Jade Zumann) nears manhood, she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her teach Jamie how to be a good man.

Writer/director Mike Mills, along with his excellent cast have created a group of characters that feel beautifully real. Their conversations contain wit and wisdom without feeling artificial and their chemistry shines from the screen. It is also to Mills’ credit that he refrains from filling the plot with dramatic events, instead opting for a kind of visual scrapbook of a group of ordinary lives. The use of archive footage and photographs to illustrate the march forward of the 20th century makes for a vibrant and exciting visual style that is only enhanced by the well-chosen soundtrack of punk and art rock.

20th Century Women is a rarity then; not only as a film that puts the lives of three ordinary women at its heart but as one that prioritises well-rounded characterisation over sensationalist plot points. A film that is at times heart wrenching, at times laugh out loud funny, 20th Century Women is irresistibly lovely.

- Linda O’Brien