The question of who we are prompts a different answer depending on who is being asked. Our parents will see us one way, our siblings another, our love interest another still. Sometimes, glimmers of one will appear before the others, but largely, we are different chapters of the same book. What would it be like to read those other chapters, or better yet, to write those other chapters in others?
Better still, what if those chapters were read and written by the strong, caring, and emotionally honest women in our lives?
Who might we become?
20TH CENTURY WOMEN is the story of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann0 – but really, it’s not. Jamie is a teenager trying to find his way in 1979 America. He is the only child of Dorothea (Annette Benning). He is the surrogate younger brother of Dorothea’s border, Abbie (Greta Gerwig). He is the friend and pseudo-paramour of Julie (Elle Fanning).
20TH CENTURY WOMEN is really the story of them, and how they affect Jamie’s life.
Dorothea is a child of the 20’s, living somewhat comfortably as a single mother. She has a nice house and a good job. She is sometimes sheltered from the state of the nation, but is deeply fascinated by the way it is changing around her. She truly wants Jamie to be a positive force within it, and realizes she cannot do it alone. This realization prompts her to ask Abbie and Julie to form a support circle around Jamie, and essentially help raise him.
Abbie is a child of the 50’s, an artist and emotional spark plug. She has embraced late seventies culture for all that it offers, spouting off the influences of David Bowie and Erica Jong. She is the most frank of all the women with Jamie, believing that if he grows up as a feminist, he will become the sort of man the world needs. All the while, she is dealing with treatment for cervical cancer, and not shielding that from Jamie one lick. Some might question the appropriateness of sharing that journey with someone like this young lad…but perhaps Abbie’s embracing of it is what makes her such a positive influence.
Julie is a child of the 60’s, Jamie’s classmate and emotional fixation. She constantly climbs in through his bedroom window and bares her soul to him, if not her body. He wants more; she knows it. That their relationship denies the sexual makes for an uneasy dynamic between them, but perhaps one that is more rewarding in the end. She tells him about the men she does get physical with, specifically their shortcomings. She tells him cautionary tales, and lets herself be vulnerable with him.
For better or for worse, this relationship will influence Jamie deeply…as will the other two 20th century women.
There’s a poetic moment early in this film where Julie asks whether one needs a man to raise a man, and Dorothea just shrugs it off. It’s poetic because it feels so very true, and presents such possibility. It makes one wonder if the men of this world would be better off if they were raised in a matriarchy, and even though they would still go through their adolescence as scared, mixed-up, uncertain boys…that they would eventually come out the other side as more acutely aware, informed, and ultimately stronger men. It’s a wonderful “what if?”…a love letter to the influential women who form better men.
The beauty of it all is the way these three women are all so strong while each dealing with their own uncertainties.
Each of Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie are dealing with their own questions, their own anxieties. Some of these hang-up’s are grand, some are very miniscule. To each of them though, they are questions that require an answer; tasks that need tending. However, despite these uncertainties (or perhaps because of them), they all have a greater perspective on the world around them. They know what parts of it can confuse, what parts of it can really freeze one in their tracks.
However, even as these challenges bring these women pause, they find ways to channel these hurdles into life lessons for Jamie. Sometimes they put on a front, sometimes they hold nothing back. All of it will shape him into a better person as he ages.
We should all be so lucky as to be raised surrounded with that sort of emotional honesty. Sure, there’s something to be said for the strong stoicism of a masculine influence, but where has that got us? Wouldn’t we be better off if we each had the love of supportive mothers, candid older sisters, curious friends. It would teach us all to be equally supportive, candid, and curious…and allow the next generation to approach this chaotic world with greater emotional strength.
While 20TH CENTURY WOMEN plays as a lovely walk through the late seventies in America, there are a few bumpy stretches on the path. Most glaring is the way the film is occasionally less a painting, and more of a mosaic – a collage of moments. The overarching narrative is frequently paused to consider how Abbie’s point of view has been shaped, or experiences that moulded Dorothea, or what has informed Julie to this point in her young life. Every moment away from the narrative engine is lovely, make no doubt. All the same, these moments are a bit scattered and disrupt the overall flow of the story somewhat.
What’s more, many of these glimpses into the past (and likewise the narrative present) evoke a similar device used in Mike Mills’ BEGINNERS. Glimmers of montage dot the film continually, with our characters giving way to imagery of wartime America, the cosmos, 1970’s punk, and the like. If this becomes Mills’ signature style – like a hyperactive Luhrmann scene, or a voice-over-narrated Woody Allen scene – this this point becomes moot. Right now though, it just feels repetitive.
All that said, when even the flaws are lovely flaws, one cannot come away from a film like 20TH CENTURY WOMEN with any other feelings than pure warmth. In our formative years, there are people surrounding us who have profound influence on the adults we will become. In that moment, we seldom appreciate who these people are and how they came to be who they came to be. They are voices in our ear, approving or disapproving looks.
This movie is for them; a way for us all to consider their complete stories…and appreciate their influence on our stories.