“20th Century Women” Review: 21st Century Film

Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24

An ambitious project deserves an ambitious name.

20th Century Women isn’t a documentary about women in the 20th century, but there is enough historical stock footage that making that leap wouldn’t be too difficult. 20th Century Women claims its name by centering its story around three multigenerational women dealing with the end of the 70s in California. Like other films to come out this awards season, there is a bit of nostalgia surrounding the time period. However, if two weeks of my “Gender and Sexual Studies” course have taught me anything, this nostalgia is present not in a “Make America 1970s again” way, but because the late 70s was a time of great transition for many women.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, the plotline concerns the relationship between a mother and her son. This seems like a relevant follow-up to Beginners, which was about a father-son relationship. As we left the theatre, one of my friends remarked that Mills’s next film will be about his nephew. Although I’ve only seen half of Beginners on TV, it seems like both films feature great performances, complex characters and a surprising amount of clever humor.

Playing the role of an aging mother to a teenage son, the movie stars Annette Bening as Dorothea. Dorothea grew up in the great depression and had her son, Jamie (Lucas Zade Zumann) when she was in her 40s. Living in the heyday of punk rock and second wave feminism, Dorothea feels alienated by the world around her and is unsure of how to raise her son.

Although she is given many of the film’s funniest lines, Bening’s most hysterical moments come from her reaction shots. Bening has that magical quality where she can steal a scene before she says a single word (Think Kate McKinnon). Her looks of shock and confusion attain that level of life-ruining perfection. The rest of the actors give good performances, but Bening is far-and-away the star. 20th Century Women isn’t dependent on Bening for its success, but she is the best part of it.

 

One of the first things to notice while watching 20th Century Women is the use of dual narration. Jamie is introduced to the audience through Dorothea’s voiceover, and Dorothea’s life story is detailed through Jamie’s narration. This is an intriguing choice because all we know about the characters is what those who are close to them know. As an audience member, there is still intimacy, but it feels as though we are an extra friend in the room, rather than just a hidden voyeur. It also allows for the movie to look back without fetishizing the ‘70s, and create a simultaneous coming-of-age/aging story.

Dorothea rents out rooms in her house to Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup). The two actors were both in Jackie as well, but that’s not relevant. Abbie is a 28-year old photographer who is recovering from cervical cancer. William is of indeterminate age, though closest in age to Dorothea, loves pottery and works as a repairperson. Abbie connects with Jamie through their mutual love of punk rock. Dorothea wants William to be a male role model for Jamie, but the two don’t have much in common.

The final piece in this 5-way character study is Julie (Elle Fanning). Julie and Jamie have been best friends since they were young. Julie hangs out at Jamie’s house all the time and often sneaks in to non-sexually sleep next to him. Jamie has begun to develop a bit of a crush on Julie, but Julie wants to remain friends. This is the type of plotline that a lesser movie would turn into an “Oh! Woe is me! I deserve her love!” type of thing, but thankfully the movie treats Julie with a bit of respect.

Dorothea is unsure of how to raise Jamie, so she enlists the help of Abbie and Julie. Julie is turned off by the idea, but Abbie uses it as an opportunity to teach Jamie a little bit about 2nd Wave Feminism.

The title 20th Century Women is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, there are three different generations of women that the film stars, but the movie is almost exclusively about heterosexual white women. I’m not advocating for a name change, but the lack of diversity was a little noticeable in such an overarching film. I’m also not saying its inaccurate for its time. Punk rock does have a history of white supremacy. In fact, Green Room, a horror movie about Nazi punks, was released just last year by the same distributor as 20th Century Women (check out A24’s other films. I trust them more than any other studio). I’m not saying that 20th Century Women is explicitly racist, but Certain Women has the better title for a film about three white women.

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The movie’s editing is as clean as it is dynamic. The film cuts out unnecessary moments, juxtaposing two ideas in an abrupt manner. In combination with some hysterical dialogue, 20th Century Women is funny and poignant. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the soundtrack is amazing. 20th Century Women is daring in its execution and yet very well-constructed.

The first two-thirds of 20th Century Women is maybe my favorite movie of the year. I found myself transfixed, laughing far too loud in an empty theatre and writing down lines I was taken by. The last third of the film isn’t bad, but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t reach the standards it had set for me. The climax comes out of nowhere, and I felt like the conclusion was too abrupt. It’s not so much of a letdown for me to suggest you avoid the film, but it was enough that I don’t feel the need to tell everyone I know to go see it. Have you seen Jackie yet?

By the end of the movie, 20th Century Women will have taken you from the Great Depression to the turn of the century. It takes a structure that could feel cheesy and turns it into something that seems fresh. Much like raising a child, it is not perfect, but it takes on a lot and does a lot right.

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