“20th Century Women” is a poignant family tale

There are always Academy Award hopefuls that just sort of slip between the cracks. This year, one that isn’t quite getting the love it deserves is 20th Century Women. Initially thought to be a major player, it has seen its star shine a bit less bright than expected, despite being of the highest quality. We’ll see if Oscar rescues it, but on Wednesday, it hits screens for a small qualifying run in advance of a bigger release to come. The film is able to both make you laugh and also bring a tear to your eye. All told, it’s one of 2016’s better movies, plain and simple.

If you’re still totally unaware of what this one is about, let me help out a bit. The film is a comedy/dramedy (so, a dramedy, though it’s more serious than anything else) centered around a trio of women in Southern California during the late 1970s who experience both freedom and love in all of its forms. This all happens while they provide lessons to a teenage boy in an attempt to help a matriarch co-raise her son. The lead is single mother Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), with the other two women mainly on hand are artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who lives in Dorothea’s house, and teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), the friend of Dorothea’s son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Also of note here is a carpenter (Billy Crudup) who lives in the bohemian house as well with Dorothea, Jamie, and Abbie. Mills writes and directs, with other cast members here including Alia Shawkat, Laura Wiggins, and more. Sean Porter handles the cinematography. Like I said when it was first announced as a New York Film Festival debut, it all sounds very promising. Once I saw it at NYFF, I knew it was even better than that.

This movie is terrific, with easily one of the best endings of the year. Seriously, it will make you cry and smile in equal measure. Bening is as good as she’s ever been, while Gerwig ups her game tenfold. Mills is a talented filmmaker and his inherent warmth shines through. A spiritual cousin to Beginners, it shows how powerful cinema can be when you mine your own family history. Everyone in the ensemble is strong, but Mills especially deserves credit for the work he did with Bening and Gerwig. Both deserve Academy Award nominations. All three do, technically, though that could wind up a long shot, as you’ll see next.

20th century womenIn a perfect world, 20th Century Women would be a big time Academy Award contender. A24 is certainly trying, with campaigns in Best Picture, Best Director (for Mills), Best Actress (for Bening), Best Supporting Actor (for Crudup and/or Zumann), Best Supporting Actress (for Fanning and/or Gerwig), Best Original Screenplay (also for Mills), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. The best day for the film is Picture, Actress for Bening, Supporting Actress for Gerwig, and Original Screenplay for Mills. All of those are in play, though only Bening appears safe right now, even if she’s no longer a lock. We shall see how it turns out.

This week/weekend, audiences should make it their business to see 20th Century Women if at all possible. Especially if you liked Beginners, are a fan of Bening, or just enjoy this sort of film, it really is something really pleasing. Again, there’s the ending too, which will just blow you all away. Even if the Academy winds up snubbing it, don’t read too deeply into that. Sometimes, unfortunate occurrences like that just happen. This is a movie of the highest quality, one that rewards all who see it. I urge you all to give it a shot. You can thank me later…

Be sure to check out 20th Century Women, beginning its Oscar qualifying run on Wednesday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He also contributes to several other film-related websites.

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