Annette Bening struggles to raise her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in late 70’s California. Drawing on the help and experiences of two other women – Elle Fanning, his best friend, and Greta Gerwig, a free spirited feminist housemate – She tries to form him into a well-rounded young man without the assistance of a significant male presence.
20th Century is a story about three women at key stages in their life, as told through the eyes of the central son character played so well by Lucas Jade Zumann. And despite its setting in the late 70’s the tone is just beautifully accessible to all. You see yourself mirrored often by the characters because really the message is that growing up is universal – no matter what age you do it at. This is mostly down to the performances which are exceptional across the board. Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig absolutely shine in supporting roles and are both shaping up to be real acting heavyweights in the near future. But the film really belongs to Annette Benning. One of the few bad reviews that I read about this movie described it as something along the lines of “a movie almost entirely taken up by Annette Benning” and honestly I could watch Benning frown all day long. How this performance was overlooked at the Oscars I will never know. But let’s not open that Emma Stone shaped can of worms just now.
It’s also a real visual and cinematic treat. I’ve always thought that realistic movies need not adopt the visual approach of realism in order to feel relatable and realistic. And 20th century women absolutely doesn’t approach this with realism in mind. There is this wonderful little visual effect used the characters leave the comfort of their home which seems to gently nod its head to 2001 (the best movie of all time). You also have to thank the wonderful California setting. From long gorgeous beaches to the small town streets and parks so reminiscent of coming of age tales from across the years.
I love snippet of time movies like this. I love the use of very specific musical and cultural references, both of which 20th century women is full of. It does help that the late 70’s was such a rich fountain of new music, ranging from the hardcore punk of Black Flag to the melodies of the Talking Heads (once described in the movie as “Art Fag music” when compared to Black Flag). The moment when one of my favourite Siouxsie and the Banshees tracks comes on really solidified for me what a terrific piece of work this was. Because as Suicide Squad showed last year, just hurling a bunch of good songs at your film does not make it good. The soundtrack has to be emotionally relevant. You should be able to relive the film through the soundtrack album. This is something 20th century women nails.
At the end of the day, for me this was one of the more egregious Oscar snubs. The fact that frankly unremarkable movies like Fences and Hidden Figures (which I did like, it just isn’t a remarkable movie) got showered with nominations while really interesting and emotional pieces of work like this as well as Elle and Jackie were left high and dry really, but again let’s not start to complain about the Oscars again (they did get the best picture right after all, sort of).