20th Century Women

Annette Bening shines in Mike Mills’ affection movie based on his own childhood

Film Review by Philip Concannon | 31 Jan 2017
  • 20th Century Women
Film title: 20the Century Women
Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Release date: 20 Jan
Certificate: 15

Mike Mills’ 2010 film Beginners was largely focused on his father’s late-in-life revelation of homosexuality, but his mother (a sardonic, scene-stealing Mary Page Keller) was an intriguing background presence, and she takes centre stage in 20th Century Women. Played now by Annette Bening, Dorothea is one of the three female protagonists, along with Abbie (Gerwig) and Julie (Fanning), embodying the crucial feminist influence that shaped Mills’ teenage years. “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that,” Jamie (Zumann) is told, which is both good advice and a line that could neatly sum up Mills’ central theme; the complex messiness of families and the curveballs that life frequently pitches our way.

Mills pulls off a delicate balancing act here. 20th Century Women is packed with details that illuminate our understanding of the characters and evoke the spirit of 1979, with cinema, photographs, music, literature and his family's own personal effects coming into play through his collage-like construction. The film never feels overstuffed or hermetic, though; instead it possesses a loose, freewheeling vibe that allows us to spend ample time in the company of these people and explore a fully realised world. Mills directs with affection and curiosity, and he clearly loves his actors, inspiring all of them to work that ranks among their very best.

20th Century Women is an ensemble movie, but really this film belongs to Annette Bening. Her funny, shrewd and touching performance presents us with a complicated and fascinating woman, torn between the desire to give her son his independence and her protective maternal instinct. It's hard to imagine any other actress pulling this off with such wit and flair, and if Mike Mills' mother really was as interesting as Dorothea, it's little wonder he felt she deserved her own movie.