20th Century Women (R)

Starring Annette Benning and Lucas Jade Zumann, 20th Century Women is a story about so many things I don’t even know where to begin.

Yes I do. Let’s begin with the fact that I had to work very hard not to walk out on this movie after 15 minutes. I thought I should get a refund while I could, but I stuck with it because I heard positive things about the movie and Benning’s performance.  I thought the movie could turn around and be one of the most amazing things I’ve ever missed.  I was hopeful.  At the 30 minute mark my hopes were dashed and I found myself regretting my initial instinct to leave after 15 minutes.  (The general rule is that you can only get a refund if you speak up in the first 20 minutes.) This left me with another hour and a half of movie to sit through, and man-oh-man, most of it was excruciating.  I don’t remember the last time I was so happy that a movie ended.  I very nearly applauded.

Annette Benning plays Dorothea, a divorced mother with a teenaged son named Jamie. Dorothea owns/runs a boarding house in California in the late 1970s. There is an attempt to portray these boarders as eccentric souls that fails to convince because they are overwritten and try much too hard.

Anyway, the story is about Dorothea’s independence, Jamie discovering his autonomy while coming of age, the eccentric boarders and all their various problems and pursuits, Jaime’s relationship with his best friend, cancer and the dangers of smoking, the boarders’ influence on the kid, the boarders’ influence on the mother, the end of the sexual revolution, the political transition from the 70’s into the 80’s, feminism, ageism, a time before there was a computer in every home, a parent learning she cannot be everything to her son and her learning to “let him go,” this mother watching her son rebel against her at every turn while he readily embraces the advice and influence of others around him, and some sort of theme regarding the more things change the more they stay the same that I just don’t care enough about to even try to explain.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, 20th Century Women is an unfocused, convoluted, and jumbled.  A poorly written script that is so frenetic, I cannot say whether it was poorly director or not. It is impossible to execute properly because there is simply too much and nothing to work with here.

I’ve already explained the “frenetic” part of the story; now on to the problem with the specificity of it all. I related to not one of these characters.  Their experience was very California-centric (where Mills hails from, naturally) in many ways.  For example, (I would type “spoiler alert,” but trust me when I tell you, it doesn’t even matter) when the kid runs away, he and his best friend take a car and ride up or down the coast to San Juan Obispo and rent a hotel room…  I’m from New York, born and raised.  My frame of reference for the term “running away” does not include teens in cars and seaside hotels.  If I took anyone’s car my dad would have killed me.  I had no credit card nor enough cash to rent a room at a hotel as a teen.  There was no seaside to escape to unless I ran away to Orchard Beach.  See where I’m going here?…  I couldn’t relate to the story from the point of view of the mother, the teenager or any of the other characters.  Sure, there was a lot of dialogue, and some of it provided a chuckle or two, but a lot of it was just nonsense, and the story, quite frankly, stunk.  I hate to put it like that.  I really do.  But sometimes it is what it is.  And if mention was made that Dorothea was born during the Depression one more time…  So!  What!  We get it.  There is a generation gap between a mother and her child, like there is between every parent and child.

You might be able to relate to these characters if 1) you are from California; 2) you have been a teenager or middle aged person in 1979; 3) you lived in a boarding house growing up; 4) you are a child of divorce or a divorced mom; 5) you have had a permissive mother or been the child of one; and/or 6) were born during the Depression. There are more specific elements as far as “relatability” of these characters goes, but you get my point.  Absolutely none of this applies to me.  And it isn’t that a movie must be about someone who looks, talks, acts like me and has had the same experiences as I have in order for me to enjoy it, but for this particular movie the lack of relatedness was a large part of what kept me from investing in the characters and enjoying them; along with the poorly written, unfocused story, of course.  I’m not certain whether this is some sort of autobiographical piece Mills has written, but it fails to earn the “slice of life” label because it occurs in too specific a set of circumstances, time, place, people – for it to be widely related to by different people from different walks of life, living or who grew up under dissimilar circumstances, in my opinion.

It’s a shame that Benning’s acting chops are squandered here. She did the best job she could with what she had.  I am personally unimpressed that she went make-up free, exposing every facial line and wrinkle.  She could have been fully beat by a glam squad and it would not have affected this movie one way or another.  It just didn’t matter.

20th Century Women earned 3.5 out of 10 bloops. I would not recommend it, as it isn’t even a “good” movie to watch if you don’t have to pay for it, in my opinion.  If there is nothing else on one lazy Saturday and it is shown anywhere, I would recommend you take a nap instead.  It’s about a woman with a child who is growing up like normal children do.  Nothing tragic, nothing cathartic, nothing exciting.  Nothing to see here.


1   =   worst ever, avoid at all cost
2   =   very bad, forget about it!
3   =   poor movie, not recommended
4   =   not good, even for free – NO!
5   =   so-so, worth it if you don’t have to pay
6   =   not bad, could have been better
7   =   good movie, worth seeing
8   =   great movie, don’t miss it!
9   =   excellent movie, a must see!
10 =   a masterpiece, go see it now!

Up Next!  Martin Scorsese’s Silence was supposed to be next, but here’s “what had happened”:  Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow, so I’m not going to sit for 2 hours and 40 minutes for a movie I otherwise would have nearly no interest in; especially after sitting through 20th Century Women.  No thank you.  I’m quite displeased that my first movie of 2017 was such a dud after finishing 2016 so strong.  Anyhow, up next will be The Founder starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller Split and Sleepless, the action thriller starring Dermot Mulrony and Jamie Foxx later this week.  Thank you so much for reading!

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