Early on in Mike Mills' witty and eloquent new film, 20th Century Women, Dorothea (Annette Bening) comes to the realization that she no longer understands her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and goes seeking help. She turns to the women she knows best: crimson-haired punk artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie's best friend and crush Julie (Elle Fanning), to help shape him into a man. "What does that even mean nowadays?", Dorothea asks.
The answer to that question is what Mills is seeking in his follow-up to Beginners, a film that was a stirring and funny tribute to his father. 20th Century Women is Mills exploring the relationship he had with his mother, and it's clear he didn't have the typical coming-of-age story upbringing, but it was still special and very rewarding. Initially the film will feel as if it's going that route, though, but Mills is too sharp for something so simple. For one thing, this isn't just about Jamie. Everyone in this story navigates an emotional journey, full of moments so small and perfect they could only have been pulled from a deep well of personal memories. As sharply observed as it is incredibly funny, this is Mills and his wonderful cast at their very best.
For the most part, Jamie is the least complex of all the characters presented, and that's not a slight or anything like that. It's just that he is also our window into the lives of these women; we observe them and all of their quirks, insecurities, and confidences through him. Dorothea is the most fascinating of all. A child of the depression who grew up in the era of free love, she's a mix of old world anxieties and contemporary liberalism, a tough mix to deal with for any kid. Raising her son in 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea sees the need for Jamie to have some kind of male figure in his life, and makes easy friends with just about any man who may fit the bill. That includes handy boarder William (Billy Crudup), who means well but perhaps is too self-involved to go the full mile. No matter how many men pass through her life, it's true that the only man who matters is Jamie, but she senses that connection slipping away.
Through his fully-realized characters Mills embraces a number of topics specific to women, from sexism and ageism, to motherhood, to female agency, but you barely notice he's doing it. Just as you never sense Mills aiming for laughs (which makes the movie funnier) you never feel that he's hammering down a point. They happen when you least expect it. The spirited Abbie is a cancer survivor, but learns that she may never be able to have children as a result. The gestures of love she receives from Jamie and Dorothea aren't big, but they are comforting and heartbreaking at the same time.
Julie is probably the most complicated character of all. It may be easy to write her off as just another teenaged girl going through a rebellious phase by sleeping with many of the men she encounters, but she's not that easy to figure out. Some of the film's funniest moments, and most frustrating to guys who have had friends like Julie, are as she constantly rejects Jamie's advances on her. "This was easier when you were little", she says at one point as she's sleeping over in his bed like they've done for years. Of course, Jamie is becoming a man and is confused by the rejection when she sleeps with others she cares far less about. And her explanation, her defense of her behavior, is a full-throated stand to be whoever she wants to be sexually. It's great to see a movie in which all of the female characters display that kind of power to just be themselves without regret, and to teach that lesson to a boy who will carry it with him into manhood, and then hopefully pass it along to his son some day.
Boasting a perfectly-curated score to go along with well-time use of archival footage, Mills beautifully captures the passage of time and the changing tide of an era. The time of free expression is over, giving way to the greed of the Reagan era. Setting the pillars that will build Jamie into his own man is made to feel of vital importance, and a mother's greatest gift to her son. While the ensemble is all terrific, this is really Bening's movie and she has never been better. It's good to see her in a role this vibrant. Even in the down moments she absolutely lights up the screen. While Jamie may be a little bit embarrassed by his Mom, like we all were at his age, I wouldn't have minded if 20th Century Women went on for longer just to keep hanging out with her.
Rating: 4 out of 5