20th Century Women is a 2016 American comedy-drama film written and directed by Mike Mills and starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann and Billy Crudup. The film is set in 1970s Southern California and based in part on Mills' childhood.
The film had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 8, 2016, and was theatrically released on December 28, 2016, by A24. The film was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actress for Bening, as well as for Best Original Screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards.
|20th Century Women|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Mike Mills|
|Written by||Mike Mills|
|Music by||Roger Neill|
|Edited by||Leslie Jones|
|Box office||$6.7 million|
The story is set in 1979, in a Santa Barbara, California boarding house. The semi-autobiographical protagonist is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old high school student. His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), a divorcee, runs the boarding house. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a tenant, is a photographer, and is being treated for cervical cancer. William (Billy Crudup), another tenant, is a carpenter and mechanic, who lived on a hippie commune. Jamie's best friend is Julie (Elle Fanning), who often spends the night with Jamie but does not want to have sex with him because it would destroy their friendship.
Dorothea, concerned that she cannot connect with her son, asks Julie and Abbie to help raise him. When Jamie learns about his mother's plan, he runs away to Los Angeles with his friends to attend a rock concert. When Jamie returns from the show, Julie tells him that she had unprotected sex with a classmate and is worried that she is pregnant. Jamie buys a pregnancy test for Julie, which comes back negative. Jamie also offers Abbie moral support by accompanying her to her doctor's appointment, where Abbie learns that she is cancer-free, but will likely be unable to have children. To thank Jamie, Abbie tells him her life story: that she was forced to leave her friends in New York and return to Santa Barbara after her cancer diagnosis, brought on by her mother's use of fertility drug DES.
One day, Dorothea and Julie discuss the fact that Dorothea has only pursued relationships with "safe" men, as opposed to men she is truly attracted to, like William. Dorothea then asks Abbie to show her the modern world. At a punk club, William kisses Dorothea, but she rejects him on account of his sexual relationship with Abbie. When William does end the relationship with Abbie, Abbie warns Jamie and Julie that they must leave Santa Barbara if they want to succeed in life.
Later, Abbie takes Jamie to a rock club where he gets drunk and kisses a girl. Meanwhile, Dorothea teaches William how to pursue a relationship with women, as opposed to seeking one night stands. When Abbie and Jamie return, Abbie shows Dorothea photographs she took of Jamie. Dorothea realizes that Jamie will never feel totally comfortable around her.
Jamie becomes curious about female sexuality, and Abbie lends him a book on gender inequality; when he reads it to Dorothea, she asks Abbie to stop teaching him about the feminist movement. The tension between Abbie and Dorothea comes to a head during a tenant dinner, where Abbie announces that she is menstruating. She grows angry at the tenants' discomfort and makes all of the men at the table say the word "menstruation". This inspires Julie to recount her first sexual encounter, which upsets Jamie. Jamie tells her that he no longer wants her to spend the night.
Julie is hurt, but convinces Jamie to take a road trip along the California coastline. Jamie tells Julie that he loves her, but Julie says she cares about him too much to have sex. A fight ensues, during which Julie accuses him of only being nice to have sex with her, and Jamie disappears. By the time Dorothea, William and Abbie arrive to search for him, Jamie has returned. Jamie admits to Dorothea that he was hurt when she asked Abbie and Julie for help because it made her seem incapable of raising him. Dorothea tells Jamie about her relationship with Jamie's father.
The film ends with the main characters describing the rest of their lives in voice-overs. Julie moved to New York City to attend college, eventually losing touch with Jamie and Dorothea. She fell in love with a classmate and moved to Paris. They decided to not have children. Abbie stayed in Santa Barbara, marrying and starting a photography studio in her garage. Her photographs got displayed in local galleries. Against her doctor's advice, she conceived two boys by age 34. William lived with Dorothea for another year before moving to Arizona to open a pottery store and marrying twice. Dorothea met a man and stayed with him until her death in 1999 of cancer caused by her smoking. A few years after Dorothea's death, Jamie married and had a son. He tries to describe Dorothea to his son, but finds it to be impossible.
Mills took inspiration from his mother and sister to create the characters of Dorothea and Abbie, stating: "It felt like I was raised by my mom and sisters, so I was always appealing to women in the punk scene or women in my world. I always leaned to them to figure out my life as a straight white guy. So I wanted to make a movie about that.” While the character of Jamie reflects his own experiences, Mills wrote the character of Julie based on the experiences of one of his friends. Mills has also described the film as a "loveletter" to the women who raised him, and though the film is autobiographical, he also noted that it is fictionalized, explaining, "With all these characters, what guides me is the real person. Of course, I’m cinematizing real people, and you can never get them right or show all of their dimensions, but that’s very much what my mom was like." After finishing the script, Mills brought it to Annapurna Pictures, who signed onto the film after liking Mills's previous film Beginners.
In May 2015, Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning joined the cast, with Bening set to play a single mother, Gerwig a young sophisticated photographer, and Fanning a provocative friend of the single mother's teenage son. On August 3, 2015, Billy Crudup was cast in a supporting role.
While preparing for their roles in the film, Bening watched films Mills's mother loved. The two also had extensive talks about Mills's mother. Gerwig prepared for her role by taking photography lessons, learning how to use a camera, listening to records, reading books, and watching films, and also spoke with Mills's sister, whom the character is based upon. Fanning was given The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck to prepare.
Principal photography on the film began on September 8, 2015 in Southern California, and production concluded on October 27, 2015. The film was shot over 35 days, with filming mainly taking place in Los Angeles, with exteriors shot in Santa Barbara.
Roger Neill composed the film's score.
In June 2016, A24 acquired U.S distribution rights to the film. The film had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival as the Centerpiece on October 8, 2016. It also screened at the AFI Fest on November 16, 2016. The film was scheduled for a limited release on December 25, 2016, but was pushed back to December 28.
The film entered wide release in the United States on January 20, 2017, grossing $1,385,336 in its first weekend, ranking 17th overall. It went on to gross a total of $5,664,764.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 89% based on 209 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "20th Century Women offers Annette Bening a too-rare opportunity to shine in a leading role — and marks another assured step forward for writer-director Mike Mills." On Metacritic, the film holds a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 40 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Owen Gleiberman of Variety gave the film a positive review, writing: "The best thing about the movie is Bening’s performance as Dorothea Fields, who’s portrayed as a very particular kind of contradictory free spirit. Divorced and proud, with a lot of heart and soul but even more over-sharing flakiness". David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter also gave the film a positive review, writing: "Mills uses some of the same devices as Beginners to illuminate his characters' cultural formation, notably historic montages of their birth years or backgrounds prior to coming together. And he also glances ahead to their future lives, after the arc of the movie. But the quilting is more seamless here because the eccentricities are so integral to the writing and performances."
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Films directed by Mike Mills