I have an affinity for films which don’t follow the regular narrative story telling pattern of the three acts. As a cinema enthusiast who sees film as some sort of a reflection of life (and beyond), I love when a film drops the audience in the middle of its story, which doesn’t have any clear beginning or ending. You just exist inside the world of it and spend time with the characters for a specific period of time where no earth-shattering, life-changing incident takes place, yet it manages to stay with you for a while. These kind of films are tricky, considering not following the basic format always comes with the risk of things going horribly wrong. Well, Mike Mill’s “20th Century Women” manages to be a film like that, which pulls it off very nicely and emerges as victorious for sure.
This is a film which is about a lot of things. It’s about an adolescent boy becoming a man, having motherly issues and dealing with both emotional and sexual awakening. It’s about a teenage girl on the verge of becoming an adult trying to see the world from a nonchalant, revolutionary perspective. It’s about an older woman questioning herself about the meaningfulness of her life while trying to figure out the relationship with her growing son. It’s about a feminist woman in her late twenties trying to finding her curve through art and human connection. And it’s also about a man, who is pretty much on the wrong side when it comes to age, but still hasn’t managed to find the contentment he is seeking. Each character here has their own journey, yet they’re all tied in one string.
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Mills put these five very different but extremely interesting characters in a seventies Southern California setting and makes a film that comes off as a very much relevant tale even in the context of modern times, which is a remarkable feat to achieve. And that happens mainly because how uniquely the film tells its story (or stories). By using multiple characters (all of them actually) as narrators, making the characters telling what exactly happens in the future with their lives (and the world) without going into any proper flashback or flashforward moulds; Mills churns up a compelling, kind of strange, modernist tale which is entertaining and insightful, simultaneously.
One of the greatest aspects of 20th Century Women is how it questions everything; from politics to music to the way of life; and tries to find some meaning in those. In one of its greatest scenes, the feminist woman character (brilliantly played by a red-haired, almost unrecognizable Greta Gerwig) freely talks about periods and menstruations with men astound her which is followed by a riveting conversation and an honest confession about virginity and sexual endeavor of another character (the teenage girl, played by Elle Fanning). On that note, the film is full of quotable dialogues which don’t feel out of place, thus fit very well into the screenplay.
The film handles the different kind of relationships between the characters very well. It cleverly puts a mother-son dynamic in the center and builds everything around that. The ensemble cast, consisting actors like Annette Benning, Billy Crudup, young and talented Lucas Jade Zumann along with Gerwig and Fanning does total justice to the screenplay by easily slipping into the skins of the characters.
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What helps the movie further is Roger Neil’s effective background score (also, brilliant soundtrack) and Sean Porter’s stunning cinematography which makes every frame of it looking so gorgeous. The excessive use of still imageries in the middle of the narrative works like a charm here.
20th Century Women is a one-of-a-kind film which might not work for everyone due to its unconventional narrative structure. Despite being set in the seventies, the film feels very much progressive and relatable. Without trying too hard, it succeeds to tell a lot about various things. This is a really well-made coming-of-age (Kind of) feminist film that doesn’t feel pretentious for even a single moment. The film draws you into its world, binds you with its characters, makes you care for them and leaves you with a bittersweet warm feeling in the end.