20th Century Women (2016)

brooke I wanted to like 20th Century Women more.

casey It’s filled with nice character moments and intriguing interactions, but it somehow adds up to much less than the sum of its parts.

brooke 3 great women + 1 rapidly aging Billy Crudup + 1 teenage boy ≠ a good story
20th Century Women (interestingly enough) is mostly about a non-woman Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann). His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), who had Jamie when she was 40, decides she wants him to live a richer life, so she asks her boarder Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend Julie Hamlin (Elle Fanning) to help her “raise” him. William (Billy Crudup) is another boarder whose very existence in the movie felt out of place. The women come together and try to help Jamie by sharing more of their own life experiences with him as he grows up and pushes away from Dorothea.

casey It’s all set in 1970s Southern California amidst a youthful, rebellious punk backdrop that highlights the generational gaps between the characters . Dorothea is a fascinating character: a single mom with a sly sense of humor and a fairly casual parenting style who’s also deeply private, almost repressed. Meanwhile, Abbie is wonderful as a shy, free spirited photographer who introduces Jaime to feminism and live punk rock.

brooke Julie is her own separate thing too: an attractive teenage girl in a place and age of free love. Jamie doesn’t appreciate that she’s willing to sleep with almost any guy but him, but we don’t have to get into the dumb friend-zone side plot. It’s one of the things that took away from the movie: Jamie consumes Abbie’s feminist literature but never understands why his best friend won’t just sleep with him.
Abbie might be my favorite part of the movie. She’s young, but old enough to have spent a few years in and out of college in NYC, only having returned home to California to deal with a bout of cancer. Her hair is dyed bright red and she’s the kind of person that will start a fistfight at a concert.

casey Last but not least, I’ve got to mention William, who initially came of as a creep (I blame the long hair and mustache), but turns out to be a sweet guy who bonds with Abbie and Dorothea, forming relationships that are charmingly romantic in their own unique ways. Anyway, the movie is about the way these three women and two men cross paths for a short time to form something like a family in a world that’s simultaneously modern to them and old-fashioned to the viewer. There’s a lot of dialogue, but not much plot, and at times it feels too clever for its own good, full of whimsical voiceover, cute camera cuts, and psychedelic montages, without enough to tie it all together.

brooke The voiceovers drove me nuts. Dorothea’s voiceover tells you that she’s going to die eventually (not a spoiler, she dies long after it ends) like, a third of the way through the movie. Who does that? Here’s my breakdown…
Things I think it did well: Abbie’s cancer stuff and the post-op visits, Jamie’s general attitude towards his mom, all of the interactions between Abbie and Jamie, that scene at the dinner table where Abbie and Dorothea fight over whether you can say “period” in polite company, and Jamie’s reactionary teenage actions.
Things I think could use improvement: William, Jamie’s motivations especially towards Julie, and the weird rainbow-smear car rides.

casey And in general it could’ve used more structure to the story, something for these generally compelling and well-acted characters to do. 20th Century Women was an odd experience: the scenes that I loved were offset by an excessively twee aesthetic and the fact that it’s, well, sort of boring.

brooke It’s a lot boring. I wanted to get involved in it because the actors (especially Bening and Gerwig) were doing great jobs, but it felt like they didn’t have a whole lot to work with. With a reworked script (and maybe different actors for Jamie and Julie), it could have been a better look into the way these women shaped Jamie’s life. Instead, it’s just a look into Jamie being a brat for the couple of weeks that his mom stepped back and let other women help out.

casey I just looked at Bening’s film credits, and she’s been in a lot that I haven’t seen. Maybe there’s been a better vehicle for the world-weary sarcasm she displays here, because I’d watch the hell out of that. Anyway, 20th Century Women… disappointing.

brooke Agreed. Bening was worth watching, but there’s no need to rush off to see it now.

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