With a limp script, uneven performances and an unsure narrative, 20th Century Women has a lot of problems, but it has some merit too.
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Out this week in Irish cinemas is 20th Century Women, starring Annette Bening, Billy Crudup, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and introducing Lucas Jade Zumann.
The film follows the trials and tribulations of Dorothea (Bening) and her son Jamie (Zumann) who are living together during the tale end of the 1970’s. They’ve been quite the dynamic duo since Dorothea’s husband and Jamie’s father divorced leaving Dorothea to raise Jamie by herself. This all goes well until the inevitable happens puberty. Jamie constantly asks questions that Dorothea does not wish to answer and after a life threatening event she begins to wonder does she truly understand who her son is and where he is possibly going in life so she formulates a plan with the tenants of her building. They’re a motley crew of misfits: Abbie (Gerwig) is a punk feminist 24 year old photographer who throughout the film is trying to figure where her life is going after a serious health scare, William (Crudup) a tenant who is helping with the restoration of Dorothea’s house and is of no real use with helping steer Jamie in the right direction to become a better man as he himself is rudderless in life and then there’s their neighbour Julie (Fanning). Julie is the object of Jamie’s affection and has a complex relationship with Jamie as his growing affections are putting a strain on their friendship.
Dorothea hopes to utilise the relationships Jamie has with Abbie and Julie to “further his development as a man” believing their modern ways of thinking will help fill in the gaps that she has in her knowledge.
What works for 20th Century Women is when it focuses on teaching Jamie to become a better man. There are particular scenes where Abbie is teaching Jamie how to understand women better, treat them better and at one point seduce them verbally, that might be a minus on the better man scale depending on who you ask. The other characters don’t contribute as much development to Jamie’s character, Dorothea simply watches her son and tries to understand what his motivations are without giving him any of the answers he craves. Julie also isn’t helping him become a better man. Instead, she teaches him how a man should smoke and vents about her sexual exploits with other guys which infuriates him to no end and then there’s William who is simply there to spout out ridiculous lines of dialogue.
On the topic of dialogue, the script of 20th Century Women is light on anything memorable. This doesn’t allow any of the talent on hand to flex their impressive acting muscles. After all 20th Century Women was tipped as a potential Oscar nod for Annette Benning. I completely disagree on this point as Benning was far too reactionary to have a presence in the film. She has discussions with other characters where she is told worrying issues with Jamie and she simply nods, Benning could have been going for an internal strife within Dorothea but that doesn’t work if you never see behind the wall she has constructed.
Another issue the film had was the theme, 20th Century Women doesn’t know what kind of film it is: Is it a coming of age film, is it about feminism, is it a film centred around the relationship between the mother and son? It’s all these elements thrown into a cauldron and as the mixture bubbles over the film spews out moments where it’s about the mother and son, it is about coming of age and it is about feminism but nothing is given enough time to cement its presence as the running theme of 20th Century Women.
Technically 20th Century Women is nothing special, the cinematography is all over the place, never focusing at the right moments to allow scenes to fully impact you emotionally. The soundtrack is filled with 70’s punk hits which gives the film a kinetic life whenever they’re brought into the film, but it doesn’t last.
With a limp script, uneven performances and an unsure narrative, 20th Century Women has a lot of problems but there are moments where I genuinely learned lessons about life and I don’t say that often about films.
20th Century Women is out 10th February across Ireland.