This film centers around divorced single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), who's running a boarding house and raising her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, 2.5 years Elle's junior) alone in 1979 Santa Barbara. Concerned about Jamie growing up without a father, Dorothea asks his friend Julie (Elle) and a thirty-something tenant in their boarding house, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), to help her raise him by sharing their lives with him. Abbie, who's being treated for cancer, begins taking Jamie on her doctor's appointments, and he buys a pregnancy test for Julie after she has unprotected sex with a classmate. Julie often sleeps in bed with Jamie, but she refuses to have sex with him because she thinks it would destroy their friendship.
Julie smokes on a bike ride through her neighborhood.
See more at my old list of Smoking Scenes in Films.
The film is interesting in how Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie are each women of a different generation and represent different eras of American history. Jamie often says, "She's from the Depression" as an excuse for his mother's eccentricities, and Dorothea is uncomfortable when at dinner one evening, Abbie forces every man at the table to say the word menstruation. The three actresses all deliver strong performances, but the film belongs so much to them that soon, you start to wonder why pointlessly empty Jamie is even in it. He reminded me of Mason in Boyhood, the alleged center of the film who's much less interesting than everyone else.
Elle is at that age where former child stars want to taken seriously, and it shows in Twentieth Century Women. She has some of her most mature material to date as rebellious Julie, who "likes to say she's self-destructive." As the youngest and least conventional of the three women, she smokes, teaches Jamie how to smoke, has indiscriminate sex, and talks about her first sexual encounter in the previously mentioned dinner scene. She appears in one scene in only her underwear (when Jamie is trying to get her to have sex with him), but it's handled tastefully enough that it never feels like shallow shock value. Elle's performance is worth watching for her fans, but it's not enough to elevate this film above average.
Premiered at the 2016 Hamptons and New York Film Festivals.
Other reviews of Elle's movies: We Bought a Zoo (2011), Maleficent (2014), Trumbo (2015).