In 1979, firmly amid what can fairly be called the second wave of feminism and the prime of punk, is a precocious fifteen year old boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), experiencing all the troubles and joys that come with being raised by three outlandishly progressive women. For me, personally, this was a very interesting and intriguing “what if” case study. Avoiding going into too much detail, this could have very well been a close possibility for my early life. 20th Century Women explores its title as it leads us through three women’s lives dealing with very different, yet very similar issues in their own ways and the effect that all of it has on young Jamie. We first meet Jamie’s mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), talking about the sudden loss of their old car; the idea of her own age looming between them the entire conversation.
“It wasn’t always old… It just got that way”
Dorothea is a middle aged chainsmoker who pines for total control and her idea of perfection. She is woman that had a child a little too old and fights that fact by struggling to be as open-minded and tolerant as possible. She never comes around to calling her son anything but “kid”, she allows her son to do what he wants when he wants to do it, encourages his problematic crush to sleep with him on a nightly basis and shows no contempt for any of it. Meanwhile, Jamie is essentially begging for a true mother’s guidance. Through his actions and his aggressive bluntness in conversation with her, Jamie is pleading for his mother to show some type of emotion towards him other than her ostensible acceptance and understanding of everything; something to show that she really does care about him.
The film poses the issues that come along with this lack of structure and early overexposure to life’s realities, primarily by flipping the idea of a traditional family on its head. Dorothea recycles men through the house almost as fast as she does cigarettes, attempting to give her son some paternal figure – but at the moment we find ourselves with William (Billy Crudup), an ex-hippy who still merely coasts through life without much aim. With Dorothea as the dominant matriarch of this dysfunctional household, representatively under renovation, Jamie is flanked by Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Desperately seeking to find the meaning in their lives, these two women deal with their sexuality, their ability to give birth and what it all means to them. In an attempt to educate and raise him with a hyperawareness, Dorothea makes it a responsibility of the two women to expose him and incorporate him in nearly every facet of their extraordinarily complicated and problematic lives.
The film explores all of this with a beautiful and serene sense of objectivity and grace. The colors throughout the film, but primarily in the house, are calming and when coupled with the very charmingly objective framing, allows everything to be presented placidly and avoids invoking any judgment on the characters or their decisions. The performances of every actor involved were graciously grounded and emotionally captivating with writing that gave them some truly memorable moments. The relationship between Jamie and Dorothea was so dynamic and utterly intriguing to watch, I just wish that was the focus. Between the fantastic characters of Abbie and Julie and the very miniscule and seemingly pointless character of William, this film just couldn’t decide what or who it wanted to be about. We were shown entirely too detailed backstories on each character with little effect on the present day occurrences. While they were mostly very interesting, revealing and pleasantly complex characters, it were those same reasons why they drastically withdrew from the impact and importance of Jamie and Dorothea – who I feel were supposed to be our protagonists.
In many senses, the film sort of bleeds into the realm of postmodernity with its strong sense of objectivity and the ever-present questioning of morals and purpose. The writing is impeccable and each character has such amazing grounding and sense of reality but because the film never really chooses which way it wants to go, it feels completely unfocused. Ultimately, 20th Century Women is a gorgeous, jumbled mess of fantastic cinematic and emotional moments that will leave you wishing you cared a little more and it wishing it were 30 minutes shorter.
Check out my “Letterboxd” 5-Star Rating!