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20th Century Women


Stars: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alison Elliott, Alia Shawkat, Nathalie Love

Director: Mike Mills

There are lots of amusing lines, nice touches and nuanced performances in this ensemble piece, though I'm not quite sure they add up to a whole film.

It's 1979, and long-divorced Dorothea (Bening) lives a higgledy-piggledy existence in a large old house with her 15-year-old son Jamie (Zumann) and her lodgers, henna-haired Bohemian Abbie (Gerwig), recovering from cervical cancer, and husky handyman William (Crudup), who Dorothea feels is 'not appropriate' for her, though he soon adds Abbie to his string of conquests.

And then there's Julie (Fanning), who spends more time in Dorothea's house than her own, often climbing scaffolding and/or trees to Jamie's bedroom, although they don't have sex. This frustrates Jamie, especially as Julie is something of a teenage nymphomaniac.

Then, perhaps as Jamie is small for his age, Dorothea conceives the (in retrospect) wacky idea of asking Abbie and Julie to help him into manhood. Jamie's a bit baffled: 'Don't you need a man to raise a man?' he asks his mother, who is actually doing a perfectly reasonable job as it is.

Well, with the help of provocative literature and lots of intimate sex talk, the girls do their best, though they go too far when carrying talk of menstruation and intercourse into a dinner party, which signals the end of the party, and the beginning of the end for this oddball household.

In voices-over, the characters describe their own fates: Bening, whose performance is a marvel of detail, knows that her chain-smoking will kill her 20 years hence - and so forth. Though quirkily entertaining, however, these characters are difficult to warm to. Even though their abnormal lives will end in normality their impact on our emotions is minimal. As a high-quality acting class, however, this couldn't be bettered.

David Quinlan

USA 2016. UK Distributor: entertainmentOne. Colour by MPC.
119 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 1, Swearing 1.

Review date: 06 Feb 2017