The "raising children" dramatic sub-genre feels like it's getting a bit of a resurgence these days. It's a big avenue for the faith-based films as it opens up the opportunity to inject a few folksy words of biblical wisdom. At the same time, other films are examining and deconstructing the notion of the nuclear family. 20th Century Women, Mike Mills' smart and endearing drama/comedy, looks at how tangent relationships and lifelong friendships have can affect the growth and humanity of an individual. While the film can feel a bit unfocused and sprawling at times, some incredible performances manage to bring together an enjoyable character piece.
Dorothea (Annette Bening) was a child of the Depression. She grew into a strong-willed working woman during the war effort and never subscribed to the traditional definition of what constitutes a family. Even when her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) was born, she never felt the need to rush out and find a husband. Owning a giant home in Santa Barbara, Dorothea opened her house to boarders to make ends meet. William (Billy Crudup) is a bohemian handyman who expresses himself by hand-crafting clay bowls. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a photographer trying to understand the meaning of her life after a medical diagnosis means she's unlikely to have children of her own. Their neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie's age and often sleeps over to get away from her domineering mother.
When Jamie hits his teen years and the strong and positive Mother-Son relationship hits a few bumps, Dorothea enlists help from William, Julie, and Abbie. As these three people have been the closest thing to a Father, Aunt, and Sister for Jamie, Dorothea hopes that if they were to share their lives with her son, her son would, in turn, open up to her. As Jamie gets to know each of the tenants, Dorothea comes to know the importance of her makeshift family.
20th Century Women was an interesting viewing experience for me. Going into this Blu-ray screening, I'd only seen part of a trailer and knew that it was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Obviously, from the cast breakdown, I knew I was in for some great acting, but I didn't quite know what sort of film I was jumping in on. At first, the film's frequent tendency to become introspective, with any given character becoming a narrator telling the past, present, and future of another character, felt odd and out of place. It certainly looked artsy and playful but, initially, it also felt contrived. Then I grew to enjoy it. What seemed like an easy means to expend poignant backstory became an interesting way to shape the other characters in the movie. By somehow knowing what happened before and what will happen after the credits roll to these individuals, we come to know why a character is they way they are in the current moment.
I've got to give a solid hat tip to writer and director Mike Mills for managing to pull this one together. His balance of narrative flow and character exposition was spot on. A lot of movies of this sort of family-style drama/comedy tend to take too many pages from the 'Save the Cat' playbook with too much showing, and not enough genuine conversation. In 20th Century Women, it's around the point you think you're going to watch a scene that would give you an earnest chuckle you end up experiencing some genuine heartfelt character moments. At various times, each of these characters shares their various life goals and expose the fears that keep them in their current state of being. The film feels honest and genuine when, in lesser hands, this could have been another trite family holiday comedy.
Through it all, we get to sit back and enjoy a terrific cast embody this oddball makeshift family unit. Once again Annett Bening proves she's one of the greatest character actresses working today. Bening has always had a knack for making her characters feel grounded and real, but here's she's in particularly great form as Dorothea. You feel her fear that she's losing her son because of her lifelong beliefs. It's the sort of fear that everyone experiences making the basis for 20th Century Women instantly relatable. While Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, and Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup, deliver fantastic performances of their own. Together they create a great ensemble cast that is a lot of fun to watch.
At the end of the day, 20th Century Women is a great little drama with a lot of heart and some honest humor. At first, I wasn't enjoying it, but by the time those end credits rolled, I was very happy. It's a little flick that almost demands repeat viewings and I can't wait to give this one another spin. If you missed this one in theaters, now is a great time to connect with it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
20th Century Women arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other upcoming Lionsgate releases before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
20th Century Women features a bright, bold, and colorful 2.00:1 1080p transfer. While this digitally shot film is bathed in appreciable detail, I'm going to state that its color usage is its most eye-popping feature. As the film plays in warm and sunny California, it makes terrific uses of yellow/green earth tones. Primaries have plenty of presence and appeal, but the look and feel of the film are that of a sunny summer afternoon. As I said, details are terrific throughout. Clothing, makeup, and Greta Gerwig's hairstyling are all on display. The house our characters live in is a terrific piece of smart production design and it looks great.
Black levels are also true and inky without crush, and there is plenty of shadow separation to give that three-dimensional sense of space. These moments are particularly notable whenever Jamie skateboards along the forested roads leading to his home. Some very slight video noise creeps in during a club sequence, about half way through the film. It's nothing too serious as the rest of the image looks spot on.
With an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, 20th Century Women makes great use of its audio capabilities. The film has a largely quiet and conversational manner, but there are several moments throughout where the surrounds kick in and you feel a great sense of immersion. Even when the film is at its quietest, there is a sense of space and emptiness in the giant house. Dialogue comes through clean and clear without any issues from sound effects, or the somber score from Roger Neill. While the film makes great use of imaging, the surround activity may be a bit difficult to notice at times. Scenes in the punk clubs and other busy locations perk the mix up, but it's the quiet sense of openness and space that keeps the surrounds working. Levels are set fine, though there were a couple moments where I felt the need to turn things up a notch or two to compensate for some quiet dialogue bits, but other than that, there really aren't any negative issues to report here.
While the bonus features supplied for 20th Century Women is a bit on the thin side, the Mike Mills commentary adds some meat to the bones and is a terrific listen.
Audio Commentary: Writer and Director Mike Mills delivers a terrific commentary that is engaged throughout and offers up a lot of great information about the production, casting, and filming specifics.
Making 20th Century Women: (HD 9:31) This is a very brief bonus feature, but thankfully goes beyond the traditional EPK feature and actually looks and sounds just like the film itself.
20th Century Cast: (HD 10:49) This is a short, but really interesting look at how Mike Mills writes characters and cast the film.
20th Century Women could have easily ended up as a trite coming of age drama comedy mess. Thankfully, in the hands of writer and director Mike Mills, we're given a sharp, poignant, and entertaining character film about what constitutes a family. With a great cast and smart execution, this is a great little flick that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Lionsgate brings 20th Century Women to Blu-ray in terrific form with a stellar video presentation and an equally impressive audio mix to match. The bonus feature package may be on the slim side, but what's there is worth picking through. This is an easy Blu-ray release to recommend.