Writer-director Mike Mills, in 2010's "Beginners," reflected on the life and death of his father (wonderfully portrayed by Christopher Plummer in an Oscar-winning performance), who came out as gay at the age of 75. With the affectionate comedy "20th Century Women," the director now pays tribute to the life of his mother. Although Mills' mother appeared in flashbacks throughout his previous film, she remained an enigmatic, mercurial presence. Here, as played by Annette Bening, she has a warmth and grace that draws us in to eagerly learn more about this remarkable woman.
"20th Century Women" takes place during the summer of 1979 when the country is in a period of transition and a moment of relative calm following the social turmoil of the 60's and before the downward spiral of cynicism that marked the 80's. Mills has called his film "an elegy for a time and an innocence we can never return to," and he uses montages of archival video, still photographs, and competing narration to create a sensory experience that cements the film's sense of time and place. Roger Neill's ethereal, synthesized score evokes the period while setting the relaxed, easygoing vibe.
A divorced, middle-aged architect, Dorothea (Bening) lives in Santa Barbara with her 14-year-old son, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann deftly injecting personality into a character that's by necessity a bit of a blank slate). As the film begins, she's renting rooms to two tenants: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a crimson-haired artist who fled New York City after being diagnosed with cervical cancer, and William (a superb Billy Crudup), an ex-hippie turned handyman who's helping Dorothea out with household repairs. Jamie's best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) is also constantly around, climbing into his bedroom each night to sleep and talk into the wee hours (and that's all, she stresses once Dorothea discovers their clandestine meetings).
A single mother tasked with raising a man, Dorothea realizes the distance between her and Jamie will only grow, that every day she'll know him a bit less. Perhaps as a result of being raised in the depression, she's a bit of a bohemian, with a partiality for communal living and prone to inviting strangers over for dinner. Embracing the notion that family is something we create rather than a stifling container we're born into, she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her ensure Jamie becomes a decent man, sharing their lives with him and hopefully in the process teaching him a bit about the world.
The film is quite good at dramatizing the ways parents and children can love but often never truly grasp one another as people. Talking to Julie and Abbie, Dorothea expresses a certain envy that they have the ability to see Jamie out in the world, whereas she'll never really know him as anything other than her son.
In keeping with the film's mellow mood, that's pretty much it in the way of story. Though Mills keeps things light and breezy, his film proves as expansive thematically as it is limited in narrative.
Both Mills and the characters he creates share an intense curiosity for the world around them; "20th Century Women" and "Beginners" have a similar sense of wide-eyed optimism.
In paying homage to his mother, Mills honors the strength and resilience of all the women who've surrounded him throughout his life. In one of the best performances of her career, Bening plays Dorothea with intelligence and humor, embracing the character's myriad contradictions. While she's warm and gentle, she can also often be prickly and standoffish with Jamie. Likewise, Fanning and Gerwig are both terrific, making their characters feel like real, complex women and not simply things that happen to Jamie or plot devices who flit into the boy's life solely to impart meaningful life lessons.
Throughout "20th Century Women," Mills is content to sit back and allow scenes to play out, letting us watch these characters talk to (and occasionally through) one another on a path toward some sort of greater understanding. As they each search for meaning and purpose, they're taking advantage of a line of communication between generations. It's inspiring to see Mills' depiction of a world in which people seek out different perspectives rather than walling themselves off from anything that challenges their worldview. Imagine living somewhere so enlightened.