Call me a sentimental sucker, but I tend to feel a certain affinity for films that explore the divide between people of differing generations. Maybe it has something to do with my own experiences, butting heads with older family members on any number of social or political issues both personal and esoteric, but my desire to reach the hearts and minds of people who declare themselves beyond growth makes anything with an older character undergoing a transformative arc speak to me. 20th Century Women is a pretty damn good movie about intergenerational conflict and the ways in which people grow at any stage in their lives, and boy did it hit that soft spot.
Those looking for a strong central narrative are probably going to have to look elsewhere, as 20th Century Women relies largely on looking in on its cast of characters at a series of small turning points at a particular moment of their lives in 1979. 55-year-old Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a divorcee struggling to understand her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as he enters adolescence. She calls upon the help of Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and their live-in tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to assist in raising Jamie to be a good man, but she soon discovers that becoming a good man may not be the same thing as being the man she wants him to be.
This is a film that lives and dies by its characters, and thankfully every single performer is turning in endearing and awkwardly comic gold. Bening as Dorothea walks a brilliantly troubled line between thinking she knows what’s best for her son yet not knowing what’s best for herself while Jamie struggles with discovering his own identity and morality in the wake of his mother’s apparently self-sacrificed happiness. Fanning is a troubled portrait of free-spirit teenage promiscuity as a reaction against well-meaning clinicalization of her angst by her own mother, while Abbie is an artistic photographer in her twenties who is just trying to find her own slice of happiness after recovering from cervical cancer. The primary sense of conflict comes when new ideas, such as punk music and the liberation of feminine sexuality, threaten to upend Dorothea’s perspective of the world and make irrelevant anything she feels she has left to teach her son. This is a story that uses its late 20th century setting to demonstrate a divide between generational ideologies that isn’t grounded in just that time period, but also shows that growth and acceptance are still possible for those who find themselves foreign to a culture more open to introspection and self-development.
But while the time period does serve a point in drawing an arbitrary generational dividing line, the film also attempts to say something about the state of America in the late 20th century that never quite congeals into a fully realized thesis. References to the rise of Reagan conservatism and Dorothea’s looming death by cigarette-induced lung cancer in the coming years serve as an ominous omen, but the film doesn’t use its anachronistic narration to actually say anything worthwhile about the time period or why the coming changes are relevant to the present conflict. As a snapshot of human experience, the film excels, but when it indulges itself in social philosophizing it tries to say too little about too many things.
Now, I quite enjoyed 20th Century Women. It was a film that, despite its pretentions, spoke to me about conflicts that I consistently butt heads with my own family over. Perhaps that’s a bit too personal of a take in order for it to serve as a blanket recommendation, but I think the messages not only transcend the time period but also the particulars of individual relationships. There is a bit of all our familial relationships somewhere in these characters, and we can find a bit of ourselves in each of them.