Film review – 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2017)

To mark 2017’s International Women’s Day, I dropped into the cinema to catch 20th Century Women, a film with three powerful and independent women at the heart of its plot. A triple Bechdel Test passer, the film indeed avoids the usual cinematic tropes and instead explores how men are often defined by the women around them.

In 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) is a 15-year-old boy who is lacking a father figure in his life. His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) has been long-single, but lives in a luxuriously huge house that she has converted into a sort of commune, in which lives a young female photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and an emotionally-detached carpenter and handyman William (Billy Crudup) who is renovating the house for her. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a girl with whom Jamie is unrequitedly besotted; she wishes for him to remain as a friend only whilst she has a series of never-seen male sexual partners.

Mike Mills has cultivated an intelligent film from his own original script, describing it as a love letter to the women who raised him.

It’s the sort of quirky and intimate story that can only be crafted from ones own experiences, with two fingers up to the notion that boys need fathers and girls need mothers in order to be raised properly. Interestingly, whilst there are innumberable films that explore fathers being thrust into the role of both mother and father figures to both boys and girls, the concept of a group of women creating a support network for growth of a teenage boy feels wholly fresh and quite important.

The standout performance in a solid cast comes from Greta Gerwig, who I have seen in several films previously and never been excessively impressed with. This time, she is absolutely mesmerising as a young woman who is recovering from cervical cancer. We learn that the cancer was probably linked to her mother’s Diethylstilbestrol (DES) drug treatment during her pregnancy. She has been effectively disowned by her guilt-stricken mother, unable to cope with the fact she feels responsible for causing her daughter’s cancer. As a role, this is no light task, and Gerwig is at times totally breathtaking in her performance.

It is strange that the boy whose life the story revolves around eventually turns out to be a supporting character to the three leads. It is a lovingly-created film that is as relatable to mothers as it is to sisters of brothers and as it is to sons. With characters this believable and brilliant performances across the board, this is a film well worth seeing.

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Film review – The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has been carving out his own route to the forefront of spectacularly stylised cinema, oozing with what can only be described as Refnisms. His films all inhabit the same universe in a way that all great genre film makers do. So it is with his latest, The Neon Demon, which has all the hallmarks of a hedonistic night in a stae-of-the-art nightclub whilst not giving up on the brutal bloodbaths we’ve come to expect of Refn’s work.

The opening shot is breathtaking – a slow dolly-out on a female model who sits motionless with a sliced throat. That girl is Jesse (an initially unrecognisable Elle Fanning). We learn quite quickly that she is in the middle of her first photo shoot, but this shot lingers long enough to have us right in the palm of the hands of the storytellers. It is simple yet brilliant film making.

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Elle Fanning as Jesse

The film takes us on a journey with Jesse, an orphan who has moved to Los Angeles soon after her 16th birthday to pursue a modelling career. Bright eyed and innocent in every way, she has no time to learn who she can and can’t trust. As the focal point of a powerful story she is brilliant in the way she carries the film on her shoulders.

The supporting cast are excellent. Abbey Lee and Gigi Bella Heathcote put in a great turn as the jealous models Sarah and Gigi. Keanu Reeves’s Hank is reminiscent of his abusive husband Donnie in The Gift, full of brutality and intimidation. It is Jena Malone’s portrayal of doting makeup artist Ruby that really comes close to stealing the show, her face betraying everything she says throughout to brilliant effect.

The Cliff Martinez soundtrack feeds into the visuals perfectly. A frequent NWR collaborator, Martinez’s sparse electronic score blends the contemporary setting with the horrific events that are unfolding on screen. This is a work of art for which he won best soundtrack at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s easy to see why.

This is a sensational film with a powerful leading performance from a girl just seventeen at the time of filming. Pairing this with such bold film making and the result was never going to be anything but an overwhelming success.