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Review: "20th Century Women" is a portrait of characters

20th Century Women is an exceptional film that speaks to all of us

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Dorothea Fields wants her teenage son Jamie to accompany Abbie, a young woman renting a room in her house, to a medical appointment. Dorothea wants him to provide emotional support. After Jamie accepts her request, she pauses, then decides to make sure her son understands what providing support should entail.

She says, “Men always feel like they have to fix things for women, or they're not doing anything, but some things just can't be fixed. Just be there. Somehow that's hard for all of you.”

“Mom, I'm not all men, OK? I'm just me,” says Jamie.

After another brief pause, Dorothea responds. “Well, yes and no ...”

20th Century Women is a smart, engaging film about a mother and her son. Or a woman and the world. Or three women and the world. It's a beautifully textured, wonderfully acted movie by Mike Mills, the filmmaker that brought us Beginners, the charmer about a father who comes out of the closet late in life.

Mills wrote 20th Century Women as a love letter to his mother. Accordingly, he created Dorothea, who was born during the Depression and had Jamie later in life. She's in her '50s when the movie starts.

Annette Bening plays Dorothea and my God, is she good. When we meet her and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, in a fine performance) it's 1979 and they live in the family home along with two boarders: artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig, at her best beneath a punky red wig) and counterculture holdover William (Billy Crudup). A neighborhood girl named Julie (Elle Fanning) is a frequent guest – she often slips in through a window and sleeps with Jamie. No sex, just hanging out and sleeping.

Dorothea enlists everyone's help in raising Jamie. This comes as no surprise to the boy, who explains that his mother was a Depression baby and everybody helped raise everybody back then. Maybe that's it. Or maybe it's part of the counterculture – less strong than it was a few years earlier, but still a formidable part of the lives of many.

Though William is a strong male presence, Dorothea recognizes that he and Jamie don't connect on a useful surrogate father-son level, so she relies mostly on Abbie and Julie.

You won't be getting a plot synopsis here, because the film doesn't have a plot in the traditional sense. Mills approaches the film in a different way; introducing the characters and Dorothea's request for help, then letting the movie just happen.

That's not how the movie really works, of course, but it feels like it does.

Mills uses shifting voice-overs. I'm not generally a fan of voice-overs, but they work here. He also uses still photos, historical montages reaching back to the era where a character was born. Periodically a character tells us what will happen to them in the future. Dorothea clues us in on the details of her eventual death.

At times the presentation style of the film reminded me of the journals of artists I admire like Chester Alamo Costello and Jesse Bercowetz. Bits and pieces of drawings, photos, paintings, poetry, observations, and more, are assembled in a way that projects meaning without diminishing the value of the many individual parts. The film incorporates notable books from 1979, along with well-selected excerpts from President Jimmy Carter's “Crisis of Confidence” speech, where he worried about an increasingly fragmented nation driven more by self-interest and materialism than by community.

The film also includes bits of orchestral music that sounds both ominous and lovely – like something out of American Beauty, only without the pretension. Songs by Black Flag and Talking Heads pop up to illustrate a different part of the culture wars.

Mike Mills has crafted a film that works as a mosaic and as an observation of distinct individuals traveling through an interesting time. The portraits of the characters are rich, credible, and fascinating, especially Dorothea.

The bottom line is this: Anytime you get the chance to see Annette Bening work, you should. 20th Century Women is an exceptional film that speaks to all of us.

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