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

2 thoughts on “20th Century Women (2016) – Ace Mini-Review

  1. sildarmillion says:

    I watched this somewhat recently, and while it’s not exactly my cup of tea, I thought it touched on some really interesting ideas. Like how Jamie starts to read these feminine texts and appreciates the importance of female orgasm. I’d personally argue that the “importance of female orgasm” is very erotonormative and the way it is talked about seems to look down on women who aren’t chasing orgasms. I thought the movie was going down that route, but then Julie nonchalantly talks about how she never gets orgasms but why she likes sex anyways. I had never heard of sex being talked about in that way and I found it quite illuminating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      My memory of this film is a bit vague now (I only saw it the once, in theatres), but I do remember having that experience, of thinking, “Oh, this movie is going in this (often rather erotonormative) direction”, only to find it swerving and making things more nuanced than I expected.

      I do also try to remind myself to keep in mind the cultural-historical context in which stories take place. From my perspective, dwelling on the importance of the female orgasm does seem quite erotonormative, but in 1979 it may have been a topic that was in need of more attention.

      Liked by 1 person

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