Disgracefully overlooked at this year’s Academy Awards is Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. It centres around a mother and her son and a set number of individuals who enter their home and lives. Annette Bening’s performance should not be undervalued simply because she is always so consistently outstanding. Every furrow of her brow and each cigarette that she lifts to her lips inhales us further into her character’s soul. She is a unique and consistent talent who, unfathomably, was nowhere to be seen in this year’s Best Actress nominees at yesterday’s ceremony. 20th Century Women is by no means Bening’s film – she is supported and uplifted by both Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig who, combined, make 20th Century Women a feminist tour de force. There is also a defiant and rich performance from Lucas Jade Zumann in not his first but certainly his breakthrough film. It’s only when I starting to write this review that I realised just how much I have to say about this, a piece of cinema that reached out the screen and read my soul. 20th Century Women is a film rich in reflection and brutal truth. When Dorothea instructs her self sabotaging lodger and her son’s childhood friend to advise and guide her adolescent son, she unexpectedly finds herself at the centre of questioning from all parties as all three women, in an attempt to mentor a young boy, flip their lessons and reflect internally on their own behaviours and attitudes. The experiences of three women, all at different turning points in their lives, frames 20th Century Women from start to finish – with voice over from Bening’s character adding a philosophical depth to what we have seen on the film’s cinematic surface.
The magic trick at the heart of the film is that it is equally a film about a mother trying to figure out her son as it is about a son trying to fathom the behaviours of his mother. In one of the film’s most engaging scenes Jamie calls out his mother’s hypocrisy of choosing to smoke herself to death whilst lecturing him on his own irresponsibility regarding health and safety. Dorothea stalls in her response – unable to comprehend this new and unexpected conflict with her son; a new development in their ongoing and increasingly mature relationship. It’s rare that a film cares so deeply for all of its characters, giving them all the time to express their inner turmoil and struggles and never judging them. A reasonably liberal mother must confront her own inability to embrace the future and release her past, a troubled young woman is forced to comprehend her stalling life and a teenage girl starts to challenge her own misconceptions of sexuality and self worth. All three women are vastly unique and equally relatable, regardless of age. Sexuality is confronted throughout with perhaps the film’s most memorable scene including reluctant group chants of the word ‘menstruation’. The female orgasm, warped male impressions of what women need and want sexually and the issue of women’s own identity being lost through sex are all discussed thoroughly and make this film an intelligent, majestic work of art.
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