20th Century Women opens with its indie heart beating for all to see. An airy soundtrack sits atop a jumble of quick shots, static images, snatched conversations, and ever shifting voiceovers that tell us (rather than show us) what makes the characters tick. Interspersed with period defining moments (Punk! Hardcore! Home pregnancy tests!), ‘20th Century Women’ works very hard to give itself a sense of time.
How much this may or may not annoy you will depend on your tastes. It is telling that the movie starts to shine once, about 30 minutes in, the scenes lengthen and more air is given for these characters to breathe. Annette Benning turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as a woman between times. Raised during war and the depression-era but a late mother and divorcee. Her freer lifestyle hides a lack of ability to communicate with her son. And a true star turn is delivered from Greta Gerwig. She later won a Golden Globe for her directorial debut, Lady Bird. She somehow manages to combine a damaged sensitivity and quiet pathos with passionate love for punk and defiant feminism.
At its best ‘20th Century Women’ is a character piece. Some scenes sparkle with beautifully crafted dialogue. You can’t help but feel sorry for 15-year-old Jamie as he tries repeatedly to connect with a mother. Unable to articulate her justifications, she simply retorts with an exasperated, “You can’t talk to me that way!”. Jamie, played with raw listlessness by Lucas Jade Zuman, is the core around which the story revolves. We feel his hopeless unrequited love and his growing musical outbursts, through to his desires to be a better man (somewhat corrupted by his actual desires).
Where I found this movie problematic was that narrative was sacrificed to the altar of heavy handed mood-creation. Early scenes are so short that I came close to turning off 20 minutes in. Excessive narration and lack of character set up meant that I was being told a whole bunch of eclectic information but didn’t actually know who people were. Plotting is wonky to the point where the gentle, if somewhat dull, hippy-ish William (played with endearing openness from Billy Crudup) is described as ‘unsuitable’ as a male role model despite us having seen nothing to suggest it.
The damaged sexuality of Julie (Elle Fanning) who wants only platonic friendship from smitten Jamie weaves around unsteadily. It's almost like the movie can’t decide what to do with her. This is a movie intent on shouting ‘THIS IS 1979!’. When a voiceover muses how people couldn’t have predicted things like the internet and global warming the immersion is broken, not enhanced. The whole thing betrays a lack of confidence in just giving these characters room to interact.
I enjoyed '20 Century Women’ despite itself. That was thanks in no small part to the great performances of the cast. “Wondering if you are happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed,” Dorothy says, early on. Taken as a whole, this movie is worth a heady evening of big moods and smeared indie cinematographic glaze on your senses.
Words by Michael Record