NYFF Review: ’20th Century Women’

Writer/director Mike Mills established himself as a striking cinematic voice with his colorful 2010 family drama – Beginners. His latest project, the wonderfully magnetic 20th Century Women cements his status as a standout talent in filmmaking.

On Saturday evening, the film was screened as the New York Film Festival’s centerpiece gala and met with joyous applause from an enthusiastic audience.

Set in 1979, the dramedy follows Doretha Fields (Annette Bening), a Santa Barbara single mother, and the women who help raise her teen son Jamie (a promising Lucas Jade Zumman). Depression-era born, Doretha became a mother at 40. With her dreams of being a pilot now in her rearview mirror, she spends her days surrounded by the many tenants she rents her home to.

Rounding out the cast is an impressive ensemble that includes Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup and an impressively against type Greta Gerwig. Much of the performances feel rich and inspired because none of the roles are flatly written or veer into archetype territory.

The story is inspired by Mills’ upbringing and his own complex relationship with his mother. This likely has a hand in the script and its characters being handled with care and consideration. Each is given the chance to narrate and present their own unique perspective.

Mills shoots in a style and consideration for his performers that is uniquely his own. Capturing the 70s in a visceral way rather than with a heavy-handed approach, he paints a lively yet subdued portrait of the era. With a sunny California backdrop, even the heaviest of emotions are conveyed with a refreshing degree of lightness.

As is true of Christopher Plummer’s incredible turn in Beginners, Bening is given room to shine in a powerhouse performance that will be difficult to forget come awards season. As with her delicate yet fierce role in The Kids Are Alright, she is a wonder to behold in each scene. She is a times raw and vulnerable and in other moments – demonstrates comedic grandeur.

While introducing the film at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Mills made note of the fact that it’s debuting at a time when the effects of misogyny are such a hot button issue – following Donald Trump’s controversial remarks about women.

Considering there is a much-discussed absence of roles for women over 50 – the film shows what a true shame it is that experiences and issues faced by such women are seldom explored on screen.

The A24 Release hits theaters on December 25, 2016.

-Justine Browning

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