In 2010, Mike Mills wrote and directed “Beginners,” a movie based loosely on his father’s coming out of the closet at age 75; it won Christopher Plummer an Oscar. Mills’s new film, “20th Century Women,” is loosely based on his mother and her experiences as a working single parent in the late 1970s; it might possibly win Annette Bening the Academy Award she has long deserved.
I’m of the mind that Mills could go on making movies about his grandparents, great-aunts, and third cousins twice removed, and we’d all be better off.
“20th Century Women” is a fairly standard coming-of-age saga on its face, with an effectively pained performance by 15-year-old Lucas Jade Zumann holding center stage. It’s the New Wave era, and his character, Jamie, is a burgeoning skateboarder at a time and place where the scene is just starting to explode. Mom has raised him to be a thinking and caring boy-man, though, his hormones are going pinball, and there are all these women around.
The movie is wryly and sometimes spectacularly attuned to what it felt like to be a teenager in 1978, right around the time Talking Heads’ “More Songs About Buildings and Food” was on the cool kids’ turntables. (Those of us who were there may rate this movie more highly than is proper or fair. Maybe not. I’m just saying.) But “20th Century Women” is equally sympathetic to what it was like to be a broad-minded woman of the WWII generation coming to terms with an entirely new set of freedoms and responsibilities.
As the bearer of that sympathy, Bening is simply wonderful; the performance is sharp, careworn, individualistic, and wholly free of vanity. Jamie’s mother, Dorothea, works in industrial graphic design, and she comes at life as both an artist and an engineer. This extends to raising a son when there are no ready male role models. What’s a mother to do? For one thing, enlist her boarders and her son’s chief crush as surrogate parental advisers, even though everyone involved thinks this is an absolutely terrible idea.
“20th Century Women” is set in (and filmed in) Santa Barbara, Calif., and it’s very much a Left Coast fable, kin to 2015’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl” up the road in San Francisco. It breathes with the open-ended friendliness of a ’70s film — vintage Jonathan Demme, perhaps. Characters swirl through Jamie’s doors, windows, and life: The crush, Julie (Elle Fanning), is slightly older and self-consciously worldly; her own mother (Alison Elliott), an adolescent psychiatrist, insists the daughter sit in on her group sessions, and every night Julie climbs up Jamie’s trellis and into his bed to vent about her cruel life and drive him bonkers with lust.
Fanning is gauche and imperious in the part — she’s just right — and “20th Century Women” may mark the occasion where we holdouts finally have to give in to Greta Gerwig. Maybe it’s that the actress’s hair is dyed a punkish pink, but as Abbie, a photographer and cancer survivor who takes Jamie to his first hard-core concerts and lends him a copy of “Our Bodies Our Selves” — this does not go over well at the skate park — Gerwig mostly jettisons her quirks and for once seems content to simply play the role.
I haven’t mentioned Billy Crudup as Dorothea’s other boarder, William, a handyman and slab of California hunkus sensitivus who prompts discreet wobbles in most of the female characters. It’s a mark of Mills’s light touch as a writer and filmmaker that William’s gift for charming women is seen as both a happy accident and a source of gnawing loneliness.
But you come out treasuring your memories of Bening’s Dorothea, who never seems less than real, whether she’s chain-smoking over her stock reports, narrowing her eyes as she takes unwanted advice from the lofty Julie, beating down her panic as Jamie disappears into the city, or trying to decide between (and dance to) her son’s possible futures as embodied by Black Flag’s angry thrash and Talking Heads’ art-boy cool.
“20th Century Women” is about choice. What kind of man does Jamie want to be? What kind of mother is right for Dorothea to be? Why does it always feel like we’re making it up as we go?
The film’s other concern is family, and Mills is of the strong opinion that family is who’s there and standing alongside you, whether they’re blood or not. (Jamie’s father is gone and barely remarked upon.) The movie doesn’t say it takes a village to raise a child, but it does promote the benefits of a good, fractious group hug.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN
Written and directed by Mike Mills. Starring Lucas Jade Zumann, Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 118 minutes. R (sexual material, language, some nudity, brief drug use).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.