Under Her Eye review: 20th Century Women

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Read the shortlisted Under Her Eye reviews then vote for your favourite.

As part of Stylist’s Under Her Eye initiative, we’re on the hunt for three new female film critics. We asked aspiring reviewers to send in a 450-word review of their favourite film – and after an overwhelming response, we’ve whittled it down to a shortlist of 20. 

Read one woman’s review of 20th Century Women below and click here to see the other entries and vote for your favourite.

Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women brims with nostalgia for the giddy cusp of adulthood. Everything is some kind of freedom for 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), living in Santa Barbara at the beginning of the punk revolution. The film follows Jamie’s trailblazing single mother, Dorothea (a hypnotic Annette Benning) who, concerned she can’t always be there in the ways he needs, enlists two women to help raise him: Greta Gerwig is glorious as Abbie, a colourful art photographer renting a room in their bohemian home; Elle Fanning acts as Jamie’s best friend, Julie, a 17-year-old baring that mix of elegant and awkward that often comes post-adolescence, pre-adulthood.

What ensues is a collection of portraits of the people in Jamie’s life as they teach him how to be a man in 1979 and, inadvertently, present us with a glowing and honest picture of what it is to be a 20th Century woman.

Mills replaces a conventional plot with a more episodic form, valuing life’s small events. By setting the film over a long summer, he allows experiences to ripen until everything – a conversation at a dinner party, a night out or a fight at the skatepark – feels like it will be important forever. In this way, the film thrives in its naturalism: relationships ebb and flow and the sharp dialogue is delivered with humility and ease.

Flashback sequences provide references for each of his characters. Viewers are shown polaroids of Abbie and Dorothea’s belongings and told which books Julie and Jamie are reading, titles floating on the screen like watermarks. Mills builds a portrait of them, each with just enough detail, humour and fallacy to make them into people we all can recognise.

Mills pays attention to every sense. The cinematography is full of dappled sunlight and Californian hues. The scenes are wonderfully kinetic, some fast-forwarded as if electrically charged, others full of limb-flinging dancing. Roger Neill’s original score of ambient instrumentals makes the opening aerial shots of Santa Barbara feel like an ascent into a synth-filled heaven. This is paired with a mixtape of Talking Heads, Bowie and Black Flag classics that both Jamie and Dorothea are discovering for the first time.

While the film is meticulously anchored to its time period by the music, costumes and events, the characters narrate from many years after 1979. Dorothea reflects on how impossible it was for them to imagine the likes of the internet or an end to nuclear bomb nightmares, whilst Abbie explains the damaging effects of a fertility drug on the daughters of those who took it. 

No viewer is left behind as Mills contextualises every cultural note, either through these voiceovers or by intercutting scenes with historical footage, overall creating an entirely immersive film. 

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