The central conceit of 20th Century Women is half slice of life, half sitcom misunderstanding. Single mom Dorothea (Annette Bening), a little on the older side to be raising her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), at least for 1979, is concerned that Jamie is growing up lost, without a strong male influence to show him the ways of the world. She considers setting him up a surrogate-father relationship with her affable mechanic/handyman tenant (Billy Crudup), but instead lands on a different solution: She calls together her other tenant, thirtyish Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie’s unrequited crush/best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and informs them that they’ll all have to work together to raise him. This confuses Abbie and Julie, and it especially confuses Jamie, who, sure, has his adolescent angst, but never really seems to be in much emotional trouble.
Dorothea is the one we wonder about. She’s both laid back and a little taciturn; while she clearly loves her son and doesn’t want to smother him, her life philosophy seems to involve just getting on with it. “Wondering if you’re happy, it’s a great shortcut to just being depressed,” she muses at one point. Bening can be prone to overacting when left unchecked, but here she’s exactly right, giving one of her very best later-career performances. Gerwig and Fanning also live up to the loftiness of the title, Gerwig playing a photographer, artist, and Talking Heads fan with dyed-red hair, and Fanning playing to her teenage insecurities with a paradoxical confidence.
In some movies, it might be frustrating to see at least some of this through the eyes of a teenage boy, but writer-director Mike Mills makes Jamie more like an admission: He can’t pretend he’s entirely inside the heads of his female characters, but he’s too interested in them to make Jamie a focus-pulling character. The bigger world around Jamie matches the signature Mills camera move in 20th Century Women: gradually pulling the camera back, revealing more details about a scene as it plays.
Some of his other stylistic touches, especially little historical-context montages of news and cultural footage, are very 90s music video (only further confusing him, however slightly, with the Mike Mills who played in R.E.M.). As with his previous film, Beginners, Mills has both visual sense and some nice writerly touches that don’t always dovetail together in the neatest ways. The movie’s idea of narrative drive floats between refreshingly low-key and seemingly attempt to piece together an interesting story from memory. There’s a haziness to the details that feels recollected, yet it doesn’t fully engage with that imperfect quality of memory. This means that the movie very much moves at its own pace, with its own odd rhythms, taking a long time to fully introduce its characters, occasionally breaking into narration, and losing the plot a little bit on what Abbie and Julie are supposed to be doing for Dorothea. This, in turn, means that when a character late in the movie says “I know this has been a lot for us to deal with,” it’s not really clear what “this” actually is.
20th Century Women feels like the adaptation of a novel, only the novel seems to be from Mills’s head. Yet in the end, it’s also deeply affecting, with empathy flowing in all directions. Every major character in this villain-free movie is so well-drawn, so human, that Mills needs only to sum up what happened to them in the years since 1979 to wind up a surprising emotional wallop. Like a lot of memories, it makes more sense looking back on it.