Don’t you need a man to raise a man?
No, I don’t think so.
20th Century Women isn’t a movie that plows any new ground in terms of the story it’s telling. It’s very much a standard coming of age story in which a young, awkward boy is ushered into manhood by a motley crew of heartfelt eccentrics. But the execution is just dead perfect in almost every way. Lucas Zumann is appealing enough as the young man at the center of the film, but it’s the cast that surrounds him that really elevates this film into brilliant territory. Annette Bening gives another one of those performances that she gets to give every five years or so that makes you wonder why she doesn’t get to give them more often as his troubled, divorced mother. Greta Gerwig is the artsy photographer who rents a room and she’s as adorably funny as usual, but this is also, I would say, her best dramatic performance; there’s a couple of really nuanced scenes where she does some of the best acting I’ve seen from her. The always excellent Elle Fanning is the young woman our main character has a crush on and she’s wonderful as well. Billy Crudup turns in a fine supporting performance as well as a charming carpenter; after Spotlight, Jackie and this, it’s safe to say that Crudup has really leaned into this whole character actor thing and he’s doing some of the best work he’s ever done. The film is lovingly directed, a sun-dappled love letter to California in the 70s. The script is really top notch, I think; Mills really draws out the characters and lets them breathe. As standard as the character arc of the main character is Mills infuses the film with real life and vibrancy; these characters feel like real people and by the time the film wraps up, I was really just suffused in a mist of bittersweet sadness and affection. This is a nostalgic film, though never a maudlin one. Bening’s character is often sad, for example, but she’s far too sarcastic to ever become melancholy. The film does have a lot of humor in it, but it is not, as some people have said, a comedy; it’s assuredly a bittersweet, nostalgic drama that undercuts its seriousness with a nice dose of wry acceptance. It’s wry without being ironic, sweet without being cloying, sad without being dark; 20th Century Women is a complicated emotional bouquet and I fear that it’ll be passed over by a lot of people who see it as just another coming of age story. It is another coming of age story to be sure. But it’s ultimately a layered character study of more than just the young main character; at the end of the day, the movie is titled right: we begin by seeing these women through the lens of the roles they fill in the main character’s life, but by the time the movie is over, they’ve become full characters in their own rights and it’s them you’ll leave the movie caring the most about. The 20th Century is gone forever, in the history books, and I still find that staggeringly weird sometimes; but these women endure. 4 stars.
tl;dr – a well-written script and a cadre of brilliant performances elevate the coming of age genre to perfection; sadly nostalgic, but also wryly funny, character-based and wise. 4 stars.