20th Century Women, the third feature from director Mike Mills, raids his own history in compelling fashion. He has employed this creative tactic before. Though Mills earned some praise for his debut, Thumbsucker, it was his sophomore effort, Beginners, that stirred more effusive plaudits on the way to securing an Academy Award for Christopher Plummer. The latter effort was heavily autobiographical, drawn from Mills’s experience with a father who came out of the closet late in life. 20th Century Women turns its attention to the other figure that looms above Mills on the family tree.
Set in 1979, the film follows Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a young teenager growing up in Santa Barbara, California. He lives in a large, ramshackle house in a perpetual state of refurbished disrepair, under the watchful eye of his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening). Completing the gender specific lineup of the title are Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an artistic border with a punk rock streak, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend, who has a habit of sneaking into his room at night for resolutely chaste bed-sharing. The other major figure in Jamie’s life is William (Billy Crudup), the handyman employed by Dorothea to help power-sand the house into shape.
The building blocks might seem basic, and the narrative is more episodic and experiential than plot-driven, but those elements are strengths rather than weaknesses. Mills has crafted a film that is wisely observant, fiercely funny, and warmly empathetic. It is nostalgic in the best sense, untainted by mealy sentiment and rich in telling details, giving the film the precision that allows a story anchored in a defined era to take on the air of timelessness. Mills doesn’t merely get the signifiers right. He captures the social pulse of a time and place when the tumult of the sixties and early-seventies hadn’t been drowned out by the angry, revving motor of the eighties and the clatter of the technological revolutions ahead. Conversations are shared loosely in rooms of aching quiet, experiences recorded to the smear of memory with no digital echoes. The beauty of human experience fills the screen until it wisps out of the corners of the frame.
There are strong performances among the supporting cast — especially from Fanning and Crudup — but the actress at the center works wonders. Bening is handed a unique role. Dorothea was a little older when Jamie arrived, so she is not some refugee of the sixties, the power of her flower faded. She was in already in her forties when the Summer of Love took place, living as a single mother who didn’t have the luxury of turning on, tuning in, or dropping out. She makes sense of the withering decade of the seventies through that lens, mired in a unique puzzlement at the Black Flag and Talking Heads records that thump from the upstairs bedrooms. With care, Bening captures those tremors of uncertainty and also the determined intellect, sturdy sense of self, and capacity for discovery that help Dorothea steady herself. There are layers of understanding in every line reading, every gesture, every moment that Dorothea quietly surveys the whirling lives before her.
Mills completes the elegance of the film with an unerring eye for interesting images. The visual restlessness that occasionally overwhelmed Beginners with fussiness is properly tempered here. The creative framing and occasional insertion of fleeting, tangentially related images speaks to the totality of vision and adds to the depth of feeling. Mills settles the film into the very thought process of the narrative, as if it were simply recollection writ large. And yet that doesn’t make 20th Century Women feel robust. It remains kind and modest. In that quiet stance, however, Mills does manage to make it vividly, emotionally grand.