Films that have no plot need to be driven by interesting characters; film-makers basically have two options in this regard. One: have a roster of zany, off-beat caricatures and create a heightened reality in which surreal hijinks and general whimsy can flourish. Two: just have regular people living regular lives and dial down the drama until it’s essentially a slightly lowered reality which revels in the details of everyday existence. The latter is almost impossible to pull off unless you have an impressively well-worked script. Without it, the story meanders, the pace grinds, and characters seem grey and passive, even downright unlikeable.
20th Century Women is so good, it verges on miraculous. It has little in the way of drama and plenty in the way of flawed humdrum characters that – in a weaker film – could easily exasperate. But they don’t. Far from it: rarely is the ensemble of a film this likeable, even lovable. Rarely does a script even attempt to pull off a story in which we’re meant to like the whole cast, in which we empathise with everyone at once. Here’s a story in which people are generally just trying to be good.
The editing certainly helps. The film’s cut to its own unique rhythm, pulsing in time to its outstanding selection of contemporary tracks. In this case, contemporary is the 1970s, as a single mother looks to two of her younger female friends to help raise her teenage boy. There are no big twists or reveals, no forced drama borne of misunderstanding – and indeed, in defiance of all misguided script-writing advice, our characters are exceptionally good at just talking to one another about their problems.
One could argue that our male protagonist is just a little too well-adjusted for a teenage boy, especially when contrasted with the neuroticism of the women in his life. Fortunately Lucas Zumann sells it through a wonderfully assured, sweet and understated performance. Greta Gerwig is charming and easy to fall in love with, while Elle Fanning makes the most of the most thankless part.
Outstripping them all is Annette Bening, who gives possibly the standout performance of her career; the fact that she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar would be an absolute travesty if using the word ‘travesty’ for anything related to acting awards wasn’t a gross exaggeration. She’s funny, warm and energetic, while every breath, tic and facial expression feels deeply human and real.
The film itself is funny, philosophical and astute. It draws on numerous literary references to speak of gender politics (women in particular – note the title), the divisions drawn by age and generation, and the magic of human connection in different forms. It’s unlikely to win any awards for forging new ground, and though it has lots to say, it lacks a central thesis to hold it all together. Still, it has ample substance that’s further elevated by a delicious, stylish energy. Whether it’s the neon-infused time lapses during driving scenes or the literary quotations laid over the screen in text, the film finds a new perspective and steers clear of triteness at almost every turn. It also manages to find a use for the phrase ‘clitoral stimulation’ that’s simultaneously hilarious and rather poignant.
It may not have the reach or ambition to be a major masterpiece, but it’s certainly a minor one. With little fanfare and little star power, it’s unlikely to be in the cinematic consciousness for long. So do yourself a favour and add it to yours; it may not be genre-defining, but you’ll be lucky to find another film this year that’s this good-natured, well-crafted and wise.