Nostalgia brings 20th Century Women to Life

A movie with this much Talking Heads in it would have to do a lot of work to get me to really dislike it. Luckily, 20th Century Women does almost no work to make me dislike it! That is to say, it did a lot of work to make me really love it.

I asked a friend if he’d like to write any reviews for the blog, and he said all he’d seen recently was 20th Century Women and that he’d need to see it again before he’d be able to write anything about it, and on a lot of levels I feel that way too. It’s a strange film in a lot of different ways: time moves very fast or very slow, we jump back to archival footage of the great depressions and then to the 70s, the voice over narration is shifting and the duties are shared by the whole cast… and the voice over itself sees into the future! Some character narrate what happens after their own death twenty years down the line.

When I told my sister I was going to see 20th Century Women, she asked what it was about. I said it was a coming of age story, but sort of told from the perspective of the women in the boy’s life. My sister asked “don’t you dislike that genre?” 20th Century Women dodges that bullet by placing the action a single transformative summer (1979), and so unlike Boyhood or Moonlight the characters are consistent and contained while still experiencing a serious “pivot” of personality.

And what a powerful summer that the movie shows us. “I’m dealing with everything, and you’re dealing with nothing,” says Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the young protagonist, to his mother at a point near the final act. He’s wrong, of course, because his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) is also dealing with a lot. But he’s right about himself. In one summer, he is growing up and he is growing up hard, and he’s doing it surrounded by three powerful women who are growing up as well.

If the women weren’t already all bona fide stars, this would be the movie that launched them into stardom. Each woman is given moment after moment to shine in. Elle Fanning plays Julie, Jamie’s burning fire love, and she plays the part well. She is a socially and sexually active teenager who sneaks into Jamie’s room each night to share secrets. She is a rebel because she wants to be a rebel. She is both mature and vulnerable, and tetters as any cool high schooler must between appearing to have it all together and being absolutely terrified that she does not (and like any high schooler she is both less and more than she believes herself to be). The movie paints her in the nostalgic strokes of first love, but never loses sight of the fact that there is a real human under the infatuation.

Greta Gerwig likewise delivers a powerful performance as Abbie. A member of the punk scene who is mature enough to act as a surrogate friend/sister/mother to Jamie, she is still young enough to be lost on her own and mothered by Dorothea, while considering herself Dorothea’s equal (actually, in all honesty, Julie also treats Dorothea as if they are on level playing field).

But the whole of the movie would be baseless without a powerhouse performance as Dorothea. Annette Bening imbues her with an enormous amount of depth – she is warm, loving, but tired and lonely too. Her fears that she can’t raise her son and her fear and understanding of the gap growing between them as he comes into maturity is heartbreakingly real. While she isn’t the protagonist, the movie is about her, and the great strength she embodies and impresses onto her son.

I’d like to return to the love story between Jamie and Julie, because I think it cuts into the heart of what the film is about. Near the end of the movie, after Jamie tells Julie that he doesn’t just want sex with her, he wants her. But she rebukes him: “you just want your image of me. You’re just like the other boys.” It’s an impossible thing to argue against, because it’s impossible to know how close his image of her truly is to who she is as a person (it’s even more impossible to suggest that he is clearly seeing her, because any person is too big for any other person to be known by someone else through and through).

20th Century Women is about that distance between people, and the fear that distance can never be crossed. People are so different from each other, the chasm seems so wide. Dorothea is a progressive and accepting mother, but she is not her son, and he is not her. She will always in some senses be reduced in his eyes to just his mother. After Jamie spends a night out on the town with Abbie, Dorothea bemoans, “you’ll get to see him out in the world, and I never will never get to do that”. It’s true. And he will never be able to see the full complexity of her. Sometimes, when you’re up close with someone, you begin to feel like you know them. Only in hindsight can you look back and realize they were really still a mystery, too complex to be reduced to your simple understanding. The movie steeped in nostalgia recognizes the love and real intimacy, but it also recognizes that while Jamie is a product of these three women he will never be able to fully grasp them, because they are too full of life for that.

20th Century Women was 8.5 out of 10 centuries.


Stay Here With Me by Robert Olmsted shares a lot of structural elements with this movie. It’s golden feverish nostalgic young love is similar, as well as its time hops revealing specific characters fates half way through the story. But mostly the young love, intense and poignantly recalled from current day, made my heart ache in a similar way.

-This is the sort of film that I think will either grow on me, or wane. I’m going to predict that it will grow. I already want to go back and see it again.

-I would give this film a solid ten but I’m trying to be more conservative with my grades.

3 thoughts on “Nostalgia brings 20th Century Women to Life

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