20th Century Women (4 stars)

20th Century Women

Annette Bening is terrific in Mike Mills' Oscar-nominated twist on the coming-of-ager

Mike Mills first read Walter Kirn's coming-of-age novel Thumbsucker in 1999, which was also the year his mother passed away from cancer. He turned the book into his 2005 debut, seeing it as a way of dealing with his relationship with his parents. Exploring familial bonds has remained a common theme throughout his work; in this, his third film, Mills comes full circle to tell the story of three women living in Santa Barbara, California in 1979 – including a mother who is struggling to cope with her teenage son.

Framed like a school report of sorts, a grown-up Jamie (played as a teen by newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) reflects on the lives of those who helped raise him. Each of the women are assigned their own soundtrack that captures their spirit and they each get some killer lines. Annette Bening turns in a sophisticated performance as Jamie's chain-smoking mother Dorothea who rents her home out to punky photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), alongside mechanic / enlightened hippie William (Billy Crudup). Elle Fanning plays Jamie's closest friend Julie, who secretly sneaks up to his bedroom at night to sleep next to him.

Mills tells the women's stories with a distant fascination, the narration recalling Kevin Arnold's bittersweet bewilderment in TV show The Wonder Years. The framing device is at times jarring but, by placing them within their own cultural context, it highlights the politics of the different decades into which these women were born. Abbie teaches Jamie about feminism, leading to a particularly funny face-off with a peer about the ins and outs of the female orgasm, and she is depicted as deeply intelligent but not yet wise. The promiscuous Julie is something of a stale character but Fanning is captivating as a restless soul. Refreshingly, it is the 55-year-old Dorothea, with her secretive inner life, dry sense of humour and effortlessly chic style who is the most interesting of the trio.

Though aspects of Mills' film play out like a guide to the female psyche, for the most part this is a poignant and witty mix-tape. All the characters get a moment to shine as they throw glorious and awkward shapes to their own personalised tunes.

General release from Fri 10 Feb.

20th Century Women

  • 4 stars
  • 2016
  • US
  • 1h 59min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Mike Mills
  • Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig
  • UK release: 10 February 2017

In late 70s California, teenager Jamie (Zunmann) grows up among three women: his chain-smoking mother Dorothea (Bening), punky photographer Abbie (Gerwig) and best friend Julie (Fanning). A poignant, witty and well-observed coming of age story.