Set In Santa Barbara, California during the hopeful optimism of the late 70s, 20th Century Women follows the story of Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a troubled Mum in her mid 50s who struggles to deal with her adolescent son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) while the world changes around her. This beautifully written, smartly shot film is an engaging look at the 70s while delivering a fantastic character driven drama that delivers on so many levels.
The household, and screen time, is shared by 3 equally strong women who, in their own way, try to guide Jamie to adulthood with their own interpretation of the world. There’s Jamie’s best friend at school Julie (Elle Fanning), who spends her time drinking and having sex to hide her pain. Jamie’s Mum Dorothea, who refuses to catch up to the changing world, stuck in her ways following the depression. Finally, there’s Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a free spirited woman who’s still getting over a serious illness that threatened to claim her life. The film respects their individual stories enough to let us embrace each character as well as get a glimpse at how they interact with Jamie.
It’s funny, its hard hitting and often times seriously emotionally driven on these characters stumbling through life to try and achieve happiness. Speaking of happiness, the moral questions subtly flaunted here are very interesting. There’s the question of what constitutes one to be happy, teen sexuality and whether you can grow up without a father figure and still be considered a man as but a few examples. On an analytical level, 20th Century Women is a great art piece to explore.
It would be unfair of me to point out just Dorothea as the stand out actress here as well. Although she does deliver some of the best scenes in the film with wisps of smoke obscuring the fear in her far-away eyes as she struggles to adjust to a changing world, the supporting cast does an equally good job. Some of this is down to the screen time – each character is treated with sufficient respect to tell their stories and have their say with the narration but also the screenplay and writing are top notch. The dialogue feels organic, there’s no forced lines here and the chemistry between all the characters can be felt from the first interaction to the last.
What I absolutely adored 20th Century Women, aside from its smart writing and excellent acting, is how these merge together with fantastic cinematography and great direction.
Although the story is predominantly told through the eyes of Jamie’s Mum, Dorothea, there are parts where we’re filled in on the background of each supporting character and what led them to wind up in Jamie’s life. This is such a good idea that it gives us sufficient information without a massive expository dump of information from dialogue, and also gives enough of a breather between the emotional journeys of the characters.
Overall, 20th Century Women is a fantastic film, certainly a great art piece with its psychedelic medley of colour and great camera work that it hides what little faults are in this film. It might not be perfect, the character of William is probably the least developed of the bunch and doesn’t get as much development as others but this is a minor point. The film is a great nod to the 70s and certainly an excellent art piece that deserves to be watched.