The slippery concept of family is at the heart of director Mike Mills's loopy, lovely, and largely autobiographical new film, 20th Century Women, a story that aches with bittersweet memory.
It's 1979 in the Southern California enclave of Santa Barbara, and fifteen-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is coming of age the traditional way, learning about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll from his family, friends, and pop culture. Jamie shares a strong bond with his single mom, Dorothea (Annette Bening), but his teenage years are taking the usual toll on their relationship.
Jamie and Dorothea live in an enormous old ramshackle house that's in a state of perpetual renovation. Mills keeps returning to the image, underscoring the idea that the characters, too, are under constant construction. To help with the bills, Dorothea has two borders paying rent and helping with repairs. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a twenty-something photographer with a mop of dyed red hair and a stack of Lou Reed records. Handyman William (Billy Crudup) is a recovering casualty of the sixties, handsome and kindhearted.
After a teenage stunt puts Jamie in the hospital, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and William to help guide Jamie. She also looks to neighborhood teen Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie's childhood friend, who likes to sneak into bed with him at night, platonically snuggling with him and confusing him mightily.
But William and Jamie never really connect. It's the women in his life that shape his worldview and cultural tastes. From Abbie, Jamie receives a thorough tutorial in second-wave feminism and California punk circa 1979. From Julie, two years older than him, Jamie gets a sneak preview of the messy sexual world coming on fast.
The film occasionally steps forward and backward through time, filling in biographies. Dorothea, we learn, was traumatized by the Great Depression as a child and maintains a fetishistic obsession with stock market quotes. William tried the commune life in the sixties, but his blue-collar roots put him at odds with all the trust-fund hippies. Abbie retreated from New York City art school when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Each character is a portrait colored with specific eccentricity, and there's no doubt that Mills is drawing from his own childhood. The details are too weird and precise to be inventions. Our perspective on this improvised family varies as the characters split off into groups of two or three, bouncing off one another and revealing new facets from different angles.
The performers positively bask in this opportunity to present rich, complex characterizations. Bening is especially compelling, exploring Dorothea's confusion as she tries to hold onto her son and let him go at the same time. She's not just a mom, either. In one fantastic sequence, she convinces Abbie to take her to the local punk club, where she tries to decipher the intricate protocols of musical allegiances. The film's final image belongs to Dorothea, as she literally takes flight after a long life, well lived.
Mills is generous with these gorgeous images. Gerwig dancing to a Talking Heads record is perhaps the single most aesthetically perfect phenomenon that the universe, in its infinite rearrangement of molecules, has ever assembled. With images this beautiful piled atop a screenplay this strong, 20th Century Women is a thrilling experience for anyone who appreciates the art of filmmaking. Part of its brilliance is that heady assessments don't occur until much later. While you're watching it, you're just in the moment with these people, in this time and place. It's the kind of movie will leave both your heart and your head spinning.