Warm, witty and insightful, Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women is his second film in a row that pays homage to a parent, the first being 2011’s Beginners, which chronicled the story of a father (Christopher Plummer) who came out of the closet at age 75. In Mills’s latest film, his best to date, Annette Bening, in one of her finest performances, plays Dorothea, a chain-smoking woman who had a son at age 40 and attempts to raise him as he becomes more rebellious and precocious, circa late 70s Southern California.
Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) constantly refers to his mother as having “come from the Depression” to explain away her idiosyncrasies, although Dorothea is far from being the only eccentric individual in his life. There’s also the excellent Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s lovely, slightly older friend, with whom he is secretly in love. She sneaks in his window most nights and camps out with him, but merely in a platonic way, and bluntly describes her sexual experiences, much to his chagrin.
Dorothea and Jamie also house two lodgers. One is Abbie (Greta Gerwig in a career-defining performance), a wise and wily, red-haired photographer who has survived cervical cancer and serves as Jamie’s guide to seducing women and learning about punk music (the film has a great soundtrack, but also a lovely score by Roger Neill). The second is William (Billy Crudup in his best performance in a while), a former hippie-turned-mechanic and carpenter who is unlucky in love and attracted to both Abbie and Dorothea.
Each character is given his or her own complicated history and mini-chapter, and Mills is generous in providing at least one great scene for each of them. In a storyline that could have turned too precious, Abbie schools Jamie in feminism, sexuality and psychology, quoting from and getting him to read everything from Our Bodies, Ourselves and Judy Blume’s Forever to M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. Her instruction also extends to music and there are a number of scenes in which she takes Jamie and in one instance Dorothea to local punk clubs to dance to The Talking Heads, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Devo.
In one of the film’s more charming sequences, Dorothea, completely confused about the merits of punk music, tries to understand how The Talking Heads and Black Flag are technically in the same musical realm. She and William quickly give up on attempting to dance to the latter and settle instead on the Heads’ “The Big Country.” Generational disconnect is handled deftly in the picture. Dorothea once considered herself a rebel, wanting to be a pilot during World War II, but now considers her son and his cohorts, and especially their musical tastes, to exist on another planet.
The movie arrives at its truths through subtlety. There’s a fair amount of drama in 20th Century Women, but there aren’t many big dramatic scenes or monologues. Among the picture’s most effective sequences is one during which Dorothea and a group of adults watch Jimmy Carter’s July 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which makes her ponder the future for her son and his generation. At the film’s end, the characters describe their own futures and how they turn out and, while not quite as sad, it reminded me of the powerful coda of American Graffiti. The film’s funniest scene is a dinner discussion that involves everything from Abbie’s menstruation to the finale of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
20th Century Women is a sweet-natured coming-of-age story about a young man and three strong-willed women from different generations who guided him to becoming a better person. The picture, much like Beginners, feels semi-autobiographical. It features a terrific cast, great writing and period detail that captures its era without banging us over the head. Its characters feel like actual people: good at heart, but flawed, with room to improve and the yearning to do so.
Watch the 20th Century Women trailer below: