Film review: 20TH CENTURY WOMEN: by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

1979 was a tumultuous year particularly in the US where the Iran hostage saga, an energy crises and economic and social fragmentation severely dented the nation’s sense of supremacy and led to serious lack of confidence in the political system and the values that had driven the nation since its founding; something upon which Ronald Reagan and corporate America later capitalised.

20th Century Women, which is set during that confusing and volatile year, explores how this changing, out of kilter world impacts the relationship between a mother Dorothea (Annette Benning) and son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Feeling at a loss to understand her adolescent son’s rapidly changing behaviour Dorothea enlists the female residents of the boarding house she run’s – rebellious left-leaning punk Abigail, who is recovering from cervical cancer and sullen coquettish teen, Julie (Elle Fanning) – to act as Jamie’s confidantes and surrogate parents. The plan, not surprisingly, creates more problems than it solves.

Although set within a fascinating year and despite the fact that the film touches on potent issues of sexuality, feminism, ageing, death and identity, it’s a strangely tepid drama. The problem lies partly in its structure, a languid rites of passage narrative that drifts aimlessly from one character to another. Admittedly, the individual characters are intriguing and well-performed by a fine cast that also includes Billy Crudup as moustachioed middle-aged hippy handyman, William. At first writer/ director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) reveals little about Abigail, Julie and William but he slowly unspools their stories through narrated flashbacks.

The film reproduces the look of the era reasonably well without going over-the-top on 70’s retro art direction and successfully plugs into the pop cultural tumult of the time; a bonus for music fans is the film’s depiction of punk’s belated arrival in America. It’s also amusing to see middle-aged Dorothea trying to grapple with the appeal of hard core punk in an attempt to understand her son.

Beyond this, though, Dorothea’s battle with the occasionally rebellious Jamie or the changing world of late 1970’s America aren’t especially compelling. Part of the problem is that there’s little friction between the diminutive precocious Jamie and his mother. Jamie isn’t much of a rebel while Dorothea is hardly a strict parent.  Their conflict has the emotional weight of a dispute between two college roommates.

As a document of the 1970’s crashing into the 1980’s 20th Century Women is thought provoking but not the intoxicating drama it could have been.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Mike Mills.

Release date: 1st June 2017.

Running time: 119 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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