There's a moment in "20th Century Women," Mike Mills' lovingly fictionalized snapshot of his late-1970s adolescence, that suggests the possible root of the writer-director's original impulse. Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), an impressionable 15-year-old who has just been exposed to the literature of second-wave feminism, reads his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), an excerpt from Zoe Moss' essay "It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete: The Ageing Woman."
Jamie may be showing off his own adorable precocity — and there's something of that in Mills' movies too — but he's also making an honest, clumsy attempt to relate to his mother, a divorcee in her mid-50s whose combination of loneliness and self-possession has long mystified him. Dorothea's response is quiet but devastating, and it shuts him down immediately. "So you think you know me better because you read that," she says. "Well, I don't need a book to know about myself."
Beneath those wounded, wounding words, you can sense a conflicted rush of feelings — a ripple of pride, perhaps, and also a tremor of unease at what her own progressive ideals have wrought. The beauty of Bening's performance lies in those marvelously suggestive layers — all the delicate, tendril-like emotional possibilities that she manages to tuck into the margins of any given moment. A bundle of achingly human contradictions that Mills wisely chooses to embrace rather than resolve, Dorothea is easily the movie's finest achievement — and certainly one of Bening's finest.
Raised during the Great Depression and since relocated to the gently bohemian soil of 1979 Santa Barbara, Dorothea is by turns generous and overbearing, opinionated and open-minded. She's a carefully manicured free spirit. When she hears Jamie listening to the Raincoats, her incomprehension ("Can't things just be pretty?") is mixed with genuine curiosity. When she learns that Jamie has forged her signature on a school document, or spies his friend Julie (Elle Fanning) climbing down from his bedroom window, she doesn't get angry; she bursts out laughing, in awe of these kids' daring and ingenuity.
A funny, intimate psychological roundelay that achieves both the evanescence and the vividness of a powerful memory, "20th Century Women" arrives five years after "Beginners," Mills' equally searching, semi-autobiographical cine-essay about how his father (played by Christopher Plummer, in an Oscar-winning performance) came out as gay at the age of 75. That film briefly featured an alternate version of his mother played by Mary Page Keller, who brilliantly laid the groundwork for Bening's fuller, more layered interpretation.
As the new movie's title suggests, Dorothea is the most important woman of many in Jamie's life, and Mills' love for his characters is evident in the way he gifts each one her own name card and a detailed back story steeped in archival footage from the period. There's Julie, a rebellious, sexually precocious 17-year-old who regularly sleeps over with Jamie but insists on keeping things platonic, to his increasingly unbearable frustration. There's also Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer in her mid-20s with a David-Bowie-red dye job who rents a room from Dorothea and introduces Jamie to the hardcore pleasures of feminism and punk music. (Her character is modeled on Mills' sister.)
The wisp of a plot is set in motion — slow, ruminative, circular motion — when Dorothea asks Abbie and Julie to help direct Jamie and teach him how to be a man in a strange new soon-to-be-post-'70s world. It's an odd request, but she sees the way her son looks up to these women — far more than he does to their other boarder, William (Billy Crudup). The only adult male figure of note in Jamie's life or the movie, William is a living casualty of the '60s counterculture, an earthy, sensitive, directionless handyman who does odd jobs around Dorothea's perpetually under-construction home.
That these characters have come together is, to some degree, a testament to Dorothea's natural receptiveness to the people around her, whom she regards with a fascination somewhere between the affectionate and the anthropological. The movie shares her fascination. Mills is after a kind of multi-generational microcosm, captured at a richly specific and tumultuous moment in American life — a conceit that makes "20th Century Women," with its meandering daisy-chain structure and ethereal style, sound more schematic than it plays.
Although the story is gloriously unshackled to anything resembling a straightforward narrative, the movie hardly wants for incident. It starts with Dorothea's beat-up Ford Galaxie catching fire, addresses Abbie's painful recovery from cervical cancer and features a short-lived pregnancy scare for Julie. There are flickers of romance between William and Abbie — and, much more tentatively, between William and Dorothea — but the movie never threatens to devolve into farce. Mills doesn't need trumped-up conflict to make us care about these people; he knows they're interesting enough as it is, and they live in exceptionally interesting times.
Some of the funniest and most fleetingly beautiful moments in "20th Century Women" are those in which the characters try to connect: Jamie dancing with Abbie, awkwardly and blissfully, under the hot lights of a rock club, or William grooving along with Dorothea as he teaches her how to tell Black Flag from Talking Heads. But the music we hear the most is Roger Neill's synth score, playing dreamily in the background as Jamie rides his skateboard over Santa Barbara roads, forging his own winding, solitary path.
The actors are superb. Gerwig, softening her proto-Riot Grrrl edge with just the right measure of unforced kookiness, does perhaps her sharpest work to date, while Fanning all but weaponizes her girl-next-door beauty; her Julie has been taught far too early to see herself, first and foremost, as an object of desire. Crudup's wonderful turn as a drifty, spacy post-hippie screw-up would be impressive even if it weren't following his slick, silver-tongued performances in "Jackie" and "Spotlight." As Jamie, Zumann is a terrific find — touchingly earnest, sensitive, eager to prove worthy of the women who have steered his education.
But "20th Century Women" belongs to Bening, and it's saying a lot that of all the outspoken, overbearing mothers she's played over the years — from the good ("The Kids Are All Right") to the bad ("American Beauty") to the ugly ("Running With Scissors") — this is the first one in which she truly seems to live and breathe as her own unbounded creation. No feminist text could do Dorothea justice, perhaps, but in its finest moments, this lovely movie comes remarkably close.
'20th Century Women'
MPAA rating: R, for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles