20th Century Women is a wonderfully rich comedy about all the forces that can shape an upbringing. It's a film with many brilliant moments, yet because it feels so small in scope (a single mother struggles to understand her teenaged son) and because it could easily be dismissed as a vanity project for its writer-director Mike Mills, some may overlook the fact that the movie itself is brilliant, as well. Detail-packed but never dull, with dialogue that absolutely sings and characters we want to stay with forever, it's the kind of work that begs revisiting, like a favorite collection of short stories.
Six years after making the smart if slight Beginners, about his relationship with a father who came out at the age of 75, Mills has mined the other half of his parentage for what amounts to a sort of prequel. Even more than Beginners, this is a film about characters and moods, not plot. The irrepressible Annette Bening plays Dorothea, a divorced, middle-aged architect raising a teenaged son alone in 1979 Southern California ... although she's not really alone, because she's turned their rambling Santa Barbara property (which seems to have been molded by the sun and ocean) into a boarding house and de facto commune, with friends and renters continuously passing through its doors.
Feeling increasingly boxed out by her offspring Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, Sinister 2), Dorothea enlists some of these companions to teach him about the world. Who is this motley crew of next-gen parenting? Well, there's a fortysomething potter named William (Billy Crudup) who's really into wood and women, but Jamie doesn't get along well with the only man in the house. So instead, he finds that his unique sense of masculinity will be sculpted by two women: punk photographer and cervical cancer survivor Abbie (a fantastic Greta Gerwig), who rents the adjoining room, and Jamie's best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), a slinky and confident 17-year-old who's just discovering her sexuality but refuses, despite Jamie's pleas, to do so with him (even though she climbs into his bedroom every night for a chaste sleepover). Jamie doesn't take well to this upbringing-by-committee, but he does have a ready explanation for it: "She was raised in the Depression," he says of his mother. "Everybody helped raise everybody." As they do now. But it's hard to tell, in a house like this, who actually needs the raising.
At times, the film can shock you with its natural wit. After Abbie introduces Jamie to second-wave feminism, he picks a fight with a skater boy over "clitoral stimulation," using Our Bodies Ourselves to challenge the guy's boasts about his sexual prowess. This spills into a trench war dividing the Talking Heads fans from the Black Flag loyalists, and ends with Dorothea, like many a curious parent of every generation, listening to these bands herself. ("What are they saying?" she asks, not to make fun of the youth but out of a genuine urge to know.) Besides being flat-out funny, the sequence illustrates how smart this movie is about time, place, and social interactions: without drowning us in references, Mills and company understand personal and cultural influences, and how they can converge and conflict in equal measure.
The perfectly poised Bening wields a cigarette in every scene, working to mask Dorothea's creeping depression with an attitude that constantly teeters between resignation and rejuvenation. Bening has a lovely comic energy that she can turn on and off at will, which lets her be far more than the "befuddled mom" trope when she has to, say, confront the news that her son has sneaked off on a trip up the California coast. Gerwig is another standout; it's always a pleasure to watch the actress break all inhibitions and dance on-camera, as she does in Frances Ha, and as Abbie she gets to channel those same predilections with a darker undercurrent, with ragdoll limbs and short red hair askew. Together with Fanning's perfect projecting-beyond-her-years air and the relatively untested Zumann, anchoring all this madness with a confused sense of his own individuality, the performers in 20th Century Women become an unbreakable chain of life rafts, keeping each other afloat.
The film that most readily comes to mind here is The Kids Are All Right, which also starred Bening as the matriarch of a nontraditional Southern Californian family. But 20th Century Women is made with more novelistic style and verve: whenever Jamie hits the road, it morphs into a defiant chromatic color scheme. Title cards and vintage stills signal the introduction of defining events, while shifting narrators offer a perspective that seems to speak to the past, present, and future all at once. This is not just a story about one kooky mother, or the fading counterculture. It's a story about how we have the power to define our lives for ourselves, and how we each come to understand what that power truly means.