Looking back at first love can be a nostalgic experiment for filmmakers. It allows them to capture a time period before the over-connectedness of our very online lives today, and that distance between people wanting to communicate offers up compelling storytelling devices. In 20th Century Girl, directed and written by Bang Woo-Ri, we get the chance to head back to 1999, when we all thought the world might end and youth offered an unclouded look at the future. Crafting a story of friendship and romance, filmmaker Woo-ri manages to present a nostalgic story that leaps into the emptiness of the present.
Bo-ra (Kim Yoo-jeong) is at the center of this story. Meeting her in 2019, we get to see her as an adult when a mysterious tape brings back her memories from high school and her first love. In 1999, Bo-ra is a 17-year-old high school student. She is good at taekwondo, not afraid to talk to anyone, and is dedicated to her best friend Yeon-doo (Roh Yoon-seo). When Yeon-doo heads to the United States for surgery, Bo-ra promises to keep eyes on her best friend’s crush, Hyun-Jin (Park Jung-woo).
Reporting back to Yeon-doo after each new piece of information Hyun-jin shares, Bo-ra hopes to play matchmaker, even joining the school’s broadcasting club to get closer. But as she becomes friends with Hyun-jin, she also begins to get closer to Woon-Ho (Byeon Woo-Seok). When she realizes that Hyun-jin and Woon-ho are best friends, she uses the latter to get closer and learn more about the former but ultimately ends up befriending them both. But one day, friendship turns to first love as she begins to fall for Woon-ho, a moment showcased in Netflix’s TUDUM event earlier this month.
20th Century Girl is sweetly made with deep care in representing a high school romance as something complex. The film manages to explore the way friendship intersects with potential romance and ultimately how teens prioritize them both. There are typical rom-com moments and dream-like romantic moments surrounded by plum trees or sitting in the rain, all combine for dynamic romantic storytelling. Ultimately, everything is presented as a memory and in that, it’s presented as cherished moments in Na Bo-ra’s past. With a filter that makes all of Bo-ra’s moments with Woon-ho feel magical, Bang Woo-ri manages to create the weightless feeling of young love before pulling us back down to earth in the final act.
As actors, Kim You-jung and Byeon Woo-seok have amazing chemistry that moves from close friends to a romantic pairing effortlessly. The care in their eyes and the way the two emote through their dialogue showcases a delicate yearning that ultimately moves into a thoughtful love. The reason their chemistry is so palpable is that both actors understand the importance of detailing a connection in their friendship first. While we see them as an ultimate pair, the romance is the payoff for seeing them grow closer as two people, seemingly uninterested in romance. And to be honest, that helps it all feel real.
20th Century Girl isn’t all that sweet in its final act, which leaves our lead alone in the end. While the twist allows for an emotional ending that left me sobbing, the bitterness in the bleakness is rough. Feeling like two movies pulled into one, the film isn’t a bad one. It’s wholesome and loving, but at the same time, the final act leaves me with questions and a small ache in my stomach that makes it hard to think back on.
Ultimately, when taken as a time capsule, 20th Century Girl is a look at young love, friendship, and learning how to act on your emotions. That said, it also manages to land a sad ending that despite wanting to offer hope, leaves the bitter taste of missed opportunity. While I think that this story would have worked better as a drama series, ever a limited one at that, the two-hour runtime is well worth the watch.
20th Century Girl is streaming October 21, 2022 exclusively on Netflix.
20th Century Girl
- Rating - 7.5/107.5/10
Ultimately, when taken as a time capsule, 20th Century Girl is a look at young love, friendship, and learning how to act on your emotions. That said, it also manages to land a sad ending that despite wanting to offer hope, leaves the bitter taste of missed opportunity.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.