I highly recommend watching 20th Century Women the way that I did: as soon as possible, and just after reading Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, which is the short story that inspired the movie Arrival. With that story on my mind, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in their styles of narration and their treatment of time, and I think it made me appreciate both all the more.
Dorothea (played by Annette Bening) is a single mother who’s worried about her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) growing up without a father. They live together in an old house that they’re renovating, and they’re renting out a couple of rooms to help make ends meet. One of the boarders is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a young newspaper photographer who’s into music and is dealing with cervical cancer. The other is William (Billy Crudup), who’s great at fixing cars, helping Dorothea work on the house, and having one-night stands. And Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) doesn’t technically live there, but she does end up spending most nights in the same bed as Jamie, albeit in a manner that’s way more platonic than Jamie would like. Dorothea asks them all to help provide guidance to Jamie about how to navigate life in the real world, from a perspective other than her own.
It’s difficult to adequately describe what makes this movie so good. All of the characters are very complex and fully-formed, and we seem to learn something new about them in each scene. Just when you think you’ve got someone pinned down, they show you a new layer to their personality. They’re all good people, trying their best most of the time, but they’re also flawed and human and very relatable.
The way that the film exists in and out of time also lends to its appeal. It’s mainly set in the late 1970s, but makes sure that we’re clued in on each character’s past, and it also gives us glimpses into their futures. It isn’t exactly a nonlinear film, but it takes a very casual approach to jumping around in the timeline. And yet somehow it does it in a way that makes perfect sense and never leads to any confusion about when any given event takes place.
20th Century Women is just plain charming. It’s often very funny but doesn’t shy away from other emotions like sadness and anger. The acting is as solid as the writing and direction, and it makes for a film that’s a joy to watch.