20th Century Women: Deeply Sad and Dryly Funny

If awards season annually produces movies that nobody is going to be enthusiastically talking about once the gongs have been handed out, it also annually produces plenty of great movies on the margins that don’t factor into the awards conversation. This lack of immediate hype is a factor that, in an ideal world, would help these superior films live on as firm favourites for many years to come, where other films fade along with their initial buzz.

I cockily put my best of 2016 list together before I’d seen all of this year’s awards season nominees, believing that the gaps in my filmography wouldn’t be interesting enough to break into my top ten. I was wrong- despite only receiving a single nomination for its excellent and insightful original screenplay, 20th Century Women is one of the finest films of the year, unceremoniously buried in an awards season full of biopics and more overtly emotive dramas.

On the outside, this companion piece to director Mike Mills’ previous film Beginners looks as equally insufferable as that quirky, autobiographical drama, even sharing many of the same stylistic tics that were so arch and off putting in his earlier effort. Here, thanks to well written, believable characters who feel autobiographical and not just the sum of their quirks (as they did in Beginners), the film feels both utterly moving and genuinely funny, with a plethora of dry one liners.

The entire ensemble cast have performances that are perfectly fine tuned to the material. Anette Benning expertly plays Dorothea, the mother who wants to be seen as liberal and carefree by her family and those in her home, yet increasingly struggles at hiding the inconsolable differences between her and the younger generation. Despite being the centre of the film, this is arguably the least dramatic role (even if it does include Six Feet Under-style flash forwards to a pivotal moment in her future), relying solely on Benning’s deadpan delivery and general bewilderment at the changing world around her. In the smallest of exchanges, or the seemingly least essential of sequences, her character becomes more richly drawn.

Despite being named after the film’s female characters, 20th Century Women is predominantly about a fractured relationship between a mother and her son, with all the women in his life helping him adapt to young adulthood. The film manages to show the turbulence in the lives of every central character, while reconfiguring these details so they factor into the focal relationship between Dorothea and her fifteen year old son Jake, played by newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann. There are no irrelevant side characters, as the trauma in the lives of each member of this nuclear family is keenly felt elsewhere. Factor in the Californian backdrop and this film would be easy to compare to the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, another keen obsessive of nuclear family narratives, if it were divorced from its pronounced style.

Mike Mills affirms that he is an actor’s director, coaxing fantastic performances from the entire cast. Greta Gerwig, who I have previously found to be insufferably quirky elsewhere, manages to have the most moving arc of the entire film- and surprisingly, the character arc most divorced from any accusations of quirkiness that could be thrown in the film’s direction, albeit wrongly. Elle Fanning also continues her track record of being one of the best young screen presences in cinema, delivering a nuanced portrayal of teenage depression that is all the more devastating due to how the film never diagnoses her with any mental illness.

Her behaviour is seen by other characters as being a problem child, manipulating the emotions of Jake, who has difficulty hiding his feelings for her- it is always clear that she is only pushing him away due to her inability to cope with people who care about her. Her self destructive behaviour isn’t overblown, as it would be in other teenage dramas. It is a downward spiral which is mundane in its believability.

20th Century Women is one of the finest films of 2016, shamefully brushed under the carpet instead of being celebrated for its strong emotional core and deliciously funny screenplay. It may look like an insufferable quirk fest on the outside, but this is one of the year’s most human films- an experience that is emotionally overwhelming, while retaining a semi-autobiographical edge.

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