Film Review – 20th Century Women
20th Century Women
Before I go on my mini rant, I just want to say that there are a lot of things I like about 20th Century Women. I’ll talk about them later, but because I am frontloading this review with whining, I just thought I’d let you know this is not a horrible film, and I pretty much enjoyed watching it. However, I AM TIRED OF MOVIES THAT TALK ABOUT WOMEN THROUGH THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH MEN. I ALSO DO NOT CARE ABOUT A YOUNG MAN’S COMING OF AGE OR EVEN HIS FEMINIST AWAKENING. I DO NOT GIVE A RAT’S ASS ABOUT SOME 15 YEAR-OLD BOY’S TENDER FEELINGS. I HAVE SEEN THAT STORY ABOUT A MILLION TIMES. SHOW ME SOMETHING NEW. PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE. There. I am literally begging not to see the same old tired stories again. I hope you are happy with my despair movie people.
Ok. 20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills, takes place in Southern California in 1979. 55 year-old Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a single mother to 15 year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and the two of them form a tight and supportive family unit. At a certain point however, Dorothea feels as though she cannot raise a boy to be man by herself and enlists the help of two female friends: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young photographer who rents a room from Dorothea, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend and deepest crush. There is a male presence in the house, William (Billy Crudup), but he and Jamie have nothing in common to bond over. Jamie learns to navigate his life with the help of these three women, and figures out along the way that women are complicated.
Jamie is a fairly opaque character and mostly serves as a device to frame the stories of the women around him. I found this frustrating, because – as I stated earlier – I am tired of women’s stories being told through their relationships to men. There was no real reason for Jamie to be in this movie, but if there absolutely had to be a child to connect the Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie, why could it not have been a girl? What is so universal about the male coming of age story that it has to insert itself everywhere?
The real meat of this movie is in the lives of the three women. Dorothea is generous, loving, and unintentionally bohemian, but also made lonely by a prickly and private nature. She keeps herself to herself, which allows her to remain whole, but frustrates her son who wants to get to know her better. Abbie is a punk rock free spirit recovering from cervical cancer whose role in the narrative is to show Jamie how to experience the immediacy of art and how to be compassionate. Julie is the focus of Jamie’s passion, but she is reluctant to have sex with him and instead regales/tortures him with the stories of her sexual experimentation with others. Of the three women, Julie’s is the least well written. Her parental angst and pursuit of unsatisfying sex is never explained; she’s just complicated. Abbie’s character verges on stereotype, but is given more depth than that type of character usually is. (Although it might have been more interesting had Abbie been less heartbroken about the possibility of not being able to carry a child to term. Turns out, fertility is not the end all be all of a woman’s life.) Dorothea is one of my favorite characters in a long time, though. She’s quirky without being a caricature, and her reluctance to share her inner life reads very real to me.
So what makes this film worth watching? The performances are magnificent. All of them. This is an actor’s film, and every single one of them does a great job. I didn’t even notice a lot of the problems until I had a chance to think about it for a while, because I was so caught up in the acting. Annette Bening is especially good, but that’s kind of to be expected. She’s great. Also, Alia Shawkat makes a small appearance, and she should be in every movie all the time.
There are a lot of stylistic flourishes (historical stills, Woody Allen moments, facts from the future, visual distortions etc.) in this film and some worked for me and some did not. Which is kind of emblematic for the film as a whole. It’s a movie about women that tries to incorporate feminism as a plot point, but uses standard storytelling devices and female character tropes to do it. I did get caught up in the film while watching it, and it wasn’t until I left the theater that I realized it maybe wasn’t as good as I thought. But it is good enough to go see if you are interested, and there is a large chance that the things that bugged me won’t bother you at all.