Editor’s Note: 20th Century Women opens in limited theatrical release December 28, 2016.
It’s 1979 in sunny, laid-back Santa Barbara, still slightly glowing from the communes, free love and surf culture of the 1960s, and Dorothea (Annette Bening) worries about the growing distance between her and her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). A no-nonsense architect and single mother, she enlists the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the 20-something bohemian punk photographer boarding at Dorothea’s Victorian fixer-upper, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s slightly older teen friend, to help raise the boy. “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” Julie asks. “I don’t think so,” replies Dorothea, and the trio embark on a moving and sometimes harrowing summer of helping Jamie go from boy to man.
20th Century Women’s weakest moments are when it stretches for something just out of its reach.
Performances here are uniformly fantastic. Bening is solid as Jamie’s capable, direct, sometimes chilly mother, while Gerwig turns what on paper must have been little more than a sketch of a punk-art rebel into an interesting and compelling character. Elle Fanning really shines here, imbuing Julie with an astonishing mix of melancholy and tenacity; when Dorothea calls Julie fascinating and complicated late in the film, you don’t necessarily believe it about the character, but you certainly do about the actress.
Rather than the one-size-fits-all stereotype of feminism usually seen in American films, we get a variety of flavors in 20th Century Women, all realistic and presented without much judgment or fanfare. But they’re also presented in a stiff and unconvincing way, as each of the main characters represents a certain generation of American woman — no surprise, considering the title — and these women look, feel and act exactly as you expect a bullet-point list of primary generational features to look once translated into a representative character. By the time these women start handing out books and regurgitating the exact correct talking points to represent their flavor of feminism, 20th Century Women feels less like a film than a survey course.
Rather than the one-size-fits-all stereotype of feminism usually seen in American films, we get a variety of flavors in 20th Century Women, all realistic and presented without much judgment or fanfare.
For people eager for more substantive representation of women in film, 20th Century Women runs the risk of pushing their But I Wanted To Like It buttons, and hard. Sure, it’s great to have a light, feel-good mood piece with women in the leads, but these Feminism 101 analogues all exist solely in the context of other men; namely, what can they teach Jamie, what can they do for him, and how can they save him. Their concerns are either romantic in nature or focused directly on their genitalia. Anything outside of that narrow worldview — photography, broken homes, their future — is relegated to filler.
It’s reflective of how society viewed women in 1979, but not necessarily how women viewed themselves. For instance, compare 20th Century Women with the two films about journalist Christine Chubbuck that were released this year. Chubbuck, a newscaster who shot herself on air in 1974, has long been described as a woman despondent because she couldn’t find a man. And in 1974, her co-workers, family and friends may very well have believed it, and there’s no reason to really doubt them; it’s probably the truth, just not the whole truth, something that both Christine (starring Rebecca Hall) and Kate Plays Christine (starring Kate Lyn Sheil) explored.
20th Century Women desperately wants to explore similar themes but just can’t quite do it, and its weakest moments are when it stretches for something just out of its reach. Where the film really shines is in its creation of a warm, comfortable, realistic and accessible world, one where anyone of any age or gender can experience a coming-of-age story, because learning — and living — never stops.
With terrific performances and an astonishing recreation of the period, 20th Century Women is a delightful coming-of-age tale, hindered at times by its desire to strive for something bigger, but something that it just can't quite grasp.