- Product Rating -

Art House Asshole : 20th Century Women

| October 21, 2016

You know how when you’re wanting to go to the movie theater and you look up all the films that are showing and there are alway at least three that you’ve never heard of, let alone have any interest in seeing? Well, good news! I’ve seen those movies. I spend most of my theater experiences in art house theaters watching those movies that you’ve never heard of and then never watch. Yeah, I’m that hipster asshole. My goal with this is to spread information out about these films, that way you can decide one of the following. “That actually sounds pretty cool! I want to see that now!” or “Man, I’m glad I decided to go see the new superhero movie!”. So without further ado, here is my article and review of 20th Century Women.

This film is difficult for me to review. Primarily because I don’t know if this film is poorly made and manipulative at the end, or if it’s a finely made film that ends really well. We’ll get into it, but I’m not sure how exactly the film is good.

20th Century Women is directed by Mike Mills from Beginners and Thumbsucker fame. I was able to attend the premiere of the film and close after I saw many reviews claiming this was the best film Mills has made. I disagree with this statement. I can understand if you think 20th Century Women is better than Thumbsucker, I personally like Thumbsucker for more personal and nostalgia based reasons. But I think it is in no way better than Beginners, which to date is Mike Mills most personal film. I think people are mistaking “best” with “most mainstream”. This film will be nominated for Academy Awards and will make a big splash at the end of the year. But I think it is the most average and plain film Mike Mills has made.

20th Century Women follows a house in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s. The house is owned by a middle-aged mom, played by Annette Bening, and her son, played by Lucas Jade Zumann. In the home, Bening’s character rents to two individuals played by Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup. All while this is happening, Zumann’s character’s friend but isn’t his girlfriend, played by Elle Fanning. Bening’s character feels like she needs help raising and teaching her son about the world, so she asks Fanning and Gerwig’s character to help teach him things. Then wacky adventures ensue. This is one of those films where there isn’t really a set plot, but instead you just watch these characters live and see what makes them tick.

This is the first problem with the film. Every scene feels like a great idea that isn’t executed well. For example, there is a scene where Fanning is teaching Zumann how to smoke and walk “cool”. This sounds like it could be interesting, having a female perspective on what a cool guy is and how to act like one. The problem is that the dialogue is often hit or miss. You will have this great idea for a scene but then have it just not fully take advantage of what it’s given. I don’t want to spoil a lot of the scenes but there is so much to play with in this time period and these proposed actions that it feels like it’s wasted on this boring script.

That being said, the acting is incredible in this film, for the most part. The three female leads in the film are all amazing. Greta Gerwig gives what I consider her best performance I have seen. I think it will be a travesty if she isn’t even considered for Best Supporting Actress. Elle Fanning is proving herself to be a fantastic actress, in the same league if not higher than her sister. And that’s not even talking about Annette Bening, who should be the frontrunner for Best Actress for the Academy Award this year. Despite all of the mediocre at worst writing the film has, these three actresses completely knock it out of the park, proving that a great performer can elevate a bad script.

On the flip side of things, however, the male lead played by Lucas Jade Zumann often is the weakest link to every scene. Which is unfortunate because he is in every scene. I’m not saying the Zumann is bad, or that he doesn’t have a future as a great actor. I think he has a lot of potential. The only problem is that he is acting in an Academy Award potential film, where all three of the female performers he acting with are grabbing for the gold. So what ends up happening is that the three female performers end up acting circles around him. It’s unfortunate but it took me out of the film multiple time due to his performance.

Another issue is that every character in this film feels like a character. That sounds dumb and doesn’t make any sense. I know, but let me explain. When I think about everyone and everything in this film, I picture the game of Clue in my head. Greta Gerwig isn’t playing a real person from the 70s but is playing what someone thinks someone would have been like in the 70s. The characters are fleshed out enough for me to feel like I care about them, but not fleshed out enough for them to feel real. It feels very calculated and without style in a lot of ways.

That being said there are certain flourishes that you can tell that Mike Mills put in that work really well. In some shots there is a glitchy and television-y type color effect that looks really cool and certain scenes are sped up for certain effects. There is no rhyme or reason to why these things pop up, but it is nice to have them come through. But with these stylistic parts, there are also other “flourishes” that don’t work. Throughout the film other pieces of art, whether it be written text or other films or public speeches, are spliced in to give a sense of the time and the people. I’m assuming this is to help move the story along as well as give a sense of time and context. But it always feels slightly out of place. Certain things work, such as the Carter speech. But most of it just feels out of place and in a way kind of lazy.

All of the previous negative things would lead you to think that I hated and or disliked this film. I don’t. The writing is really the only thing that is bad in the film. It’s shot well, the acting is great for the most part. It is very competent. It just lacks the fun flair that I’ve come to love from Mike Mills. It didn’t hit me as hard as Beginners and didn’t stick with me like it did with Thumbsucker. But when the last scene played, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if it was emotionally manipulative. I don’t know if all of the puzzle pieces given from previous scenes just came together perfectly. But when the last scene happened, I was bawling. I can’t explain it because previously I never thought it was fantastic or anything. But it stuck a cord with me at the end.

My star rating of the film might go down in the future. But I’m sticking with it at four stars right now. I recommend the film if you love Academy Award films because this film was tailored to that crowd. It is going to be a big deal when it comes out, but don’t get your hopes too high. It’s good. Even if it is very basic.

About the Author:

Henry Jarvis is the youngest member of the Reel Nerds. His favorite films include Space Jam and Dude, Where’s My Car? and Lawrence of Arabia. He enjoys those pretentious art house films that Ryan hates. He sees a lot of movies! Honestly more than he should. He replaces his lack of social skills and meaningful friendships with his love of cinema! He’s also crying while he writes this biography for himself. His favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, David Fincher, and David Lean.
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