At one point in 20th Century Women, writer-director Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical comedy-drama, one character asks another, “How did you get to be this person that you are?” It’s that loving curiosity that emblematizes Mills’ work, which is both empathetic and self-searching.
With his previous film, Beginners, Mills memorialized his father in a story of late-in-life coming out (Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer played the surrogates for Mills and his dad). Now, Mills turns his attention to his formative year and the women in his life, especially his mother. The story takes place “at a turning point in our history,” as Jimmy Carter puts it in his “malaise” or “crisis of confidence” speech. In 1979, Mills was becoming a man not long after America, too, lost its innocence, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and about to welcome Reagan as the man with the answers for the go-go ‘80s.
Annette Bening plays single mother Dorothea Fields. “Don’t worry about her,” her fourteen-year-old son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) clarifies. “She’s from the Depression.” Though partly Jamie’s coming-of-age story, 20th Century Women primarily celebrates three generations of feminists in Dorothea and the family friends—Greta Gerwig’s free-spirited boarder Abbie and Elle Fanning’s teen neighbor Julie—that Dorothea enlists to help raise her son.
Along the way, Mills recalls the cultural tides that brought in punk rock to answer conservative, corporate authority, crucially integrating pop culture and pop philosophy as inextricable from character: Humphrey Bogart and the Talking Heads, M. Scott Peck and Judy Blume. At its margins, 20th Century Women also evinces an experimental flair typical of Mills’ art-world sensibility: a unique aesthetic of character collage and historical montage that sometimes erupts into fast-mo or druggy “trails.”
Mostly, though, 20th Century Women is a highly witty, deeply humane look at people who may be too conscious for their own good, people who think and feel too much ever to be truly happy. It’s a film crammed with true observations about life’s contradictions and frustrations and fleeting joys, about the cruelties of even the most loving relationships and the deep need to understand and protect the people we love.
Above all, Bening pumps the blood of the film with yet another flawless performance. Just to watch her listen, fully present and with amazing focus, amounts to a master class in acting. Indeed, all the actors in the film are as good as they’e ever been (Billy Crudup plays the lovably fumbling romantic in orbit around the Fields home). Mills’ thoughtful, mature filmmaking and this beautifully humane, searching story of differing generational perspectives in conflict and mutual support give the actors an ideal circumstance to ply their wares.
For all of life’s disapointments, the wistful 20th Century Women feels like a smile and a hug. Mills invites us to relate to good people making mistakes, rolling with the punches, and sometimes getting it right. That’s how, one hopes, you get to be the person that you are.