20th Century Women (2016) – Ace Mini-Review

20th Century Women
Starring: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning
Written & Directed by: Mike Mills
U.S.A., 2016

How good is this movie?

A smart and funny film with some unusually interesting and believable female characters. I liked all the performances, but especially enjoyed Annette Bening’s bluntly impudent Dorothea. My one disappointment is that the movie never provides a satisfying answer to its very timely question: How do you raise a good man in a world seemingly devoid of positive male role-models? Its apparent conclusion – that Jamie is already a good man, and that Dorothea should worry less about him and more about her own happiness – might be comforting, but it’s not exactly helpful.

How ace is this movie?

The film has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude towards sex. All the characters are explicitly sexual, and specifically heterosexual, so sex is a major concern of the plot, but it’s not pivotal to it. The most interesting relationship, from an asexual perspective, is Jamie’s friendship with Julie, who frequently sleeps in his bed but refuses to have sex with him. Since Jamie wants to have sex with her, and Julie has sex with numerous other boys, the relationship can be called chaste but not really asexual. In one scene, Abbie even tells Jamie that he shouldn’t allow Julie to sleep with him unless they have sex. This surprising statement from a second-wave feminist smacks uncomfortably of sexual entitlement, but may also be rooted in a positive message about consent: Julie isn’t obliged to give Jamie sex, but neither is Jamie obliged to sleep with her if it causes him sexual frustration. In fact, Julie’s reason for not having sex with Jamie – that emotional intimacy and sex are mutually incompatible for her – is more sad than empowered. I’m glad that the movie avoids the cliché of using sex to reward the hero for basic decency, but at the same time I can’t help but feel sorry that the truly good men in this film aren’t given more of a chance to make the women in their lives happy. This is not, however, an ace-positive downplaying of sexual bonds in favour of non-sexual ones. None of the friendships survives in the long term, either, and all the characters end up in romantic relationships – just not with each other. Ultimately, the movie is all about relationships, yet it feels pessimistic about them.

3.5 Stars; 3 Aces

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