NYFF Film Review: ’20th Century Women’ Redefines Family and Relationships

20th-century-women-movie-teaser-poster2016 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Clever and beautifully endearing, Mike Mills‘ beautiful portrait of five people in the late 1970s is one of the year’s most glamorous efforts. Vaunting an exceptional ensemble, Mills’ wistful and ingenious script stands tall above the competition. Sweet-minded and shimmering in its comedic beats and even more irresistible in its dive into the dramatic elements, “20th Century Women” is one the year’s most pleasant surprises.

The film tells the story of three women: Dorothea (Annette Bening), Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning). The women explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s. In the middle of their self examinations is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea’s son, a young boy trying to come to terms with his own self.

“20th Century Women” assembles scenes of ascertained wisdom. This is the master stroke in the actual creation of its central characters, all authentic and genuinely real. Mills’ casual hand at storytelling reveals itself as something much deeper by film’s end. He captures the essence of humanity, giving a refreshing peek into the dimension and clash between generations, all with their own unique voice.

annettebening_20thcenturywomenBening delivers her best performance since her Oscar-nominated turn in “American Beauty.” She taps into the defensive yet vulnerable nature of Dorothea, allowing the audience to be invited into her world and happily just reside. Another Oscar-caliber performance from the veteran actress.

Gerwig’s work is her most contrasting of anything she’s done before. Not just playing eccentric or idiosyncratic for the sake of her audience, she discovers and exposes a fragility in herself as an actress. It’s her finest work to date.

Fanning’s capacity as an actress has been well noted throughout her young career. “Super 8,” “Ginger & Rosa” and “Trumbo” just began to scratch the surface. As the promiscuous and tortured Julie, Fanning designs a convincing and distinct teenager in a time where adolescence is all too confusing.

Leading the charge is the young Zumann in his sophomore feature performance. He finds the willingness in Jamie to explore his world, and the pain of the absence of so much.  

Billy Crudup, as the deeply sensitive William, finds his stride early on. He gives off Russell Hammond vibes in all the best ways.

What’s best about “20th Century Women” is how much larger it feels. The exterior shows a small, coming-of-age indie gem but Mills utilizes the sensibilities of cinematographer Sean Porter. Porter keeps the reels intimate and nearly flawless. He paints a beautiful vision of life in the 1970s. Roger Neill’s music is deeply affecting while Leslie Jones’ editing gets most of the job done. An apparent hump exists, but for the final scene alone, everything will be forgiven.

“20th Century Women” is the best Centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival since 2009’s “Precious.” The film deserves every bit of emotion it wrenches from your soul. It is a human comedy that touches the human factor. This is the film that the Oscars need to recognize in 2016, performances and all.

“20th Century Women” is distributed by A24 and is scheduled to be released on Dec. 25 (limited).

GRADE: (★★★½)

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About Clayton Davis

Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of AwardsCircuit.com. Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He's also an active member of New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association.Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include the New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.
  • Joey Magidson

    Agreed, especially about the ending.