At various points in Mike Mills’ lovely minor-key comedy-drama about coming of age in a nontraditional family, you might find yourself itching to get out of your seat and dance along with the people onscreen as they cut loose to songs from the distant past or from their rapidly spinning present. As much as the music, the sheer likability of these lived-in characters is a powerful magnet, thanks to insightful writing and a note-perfect ensemble anchored by a never-better Annette Bening, playing a woman both wise and quizzical, poised right down to her frayed edges.
If Beginners was Mills’ love letter to his late father, then 20th Century Women, despite being less tethered to autobiography, is an equally heartfelt tribute to his mother and the other women who helped coax him toward maturity during a time of cultural transition. Opening Christmas Day, the A24 release should hit a sweet spot with discerning moviegoers, particularly those old enough to remember 1979.
A warmly textured family affair.
The chief strength of Beginners was Christopher Plummer’s Oscar-winning performance, a nuanced portrait of a gay man who came out late in life and whose joyous liberation was so infectious that even the death sentence of cancer could barely dampen it. But while the 2011 movie was widely embraced as a quirky charmer, I confess I found its strained whimsicality cloying and the central relationship of its younger characters too twee to be involving.
There was, however, a riveting presence that kept striding in from the sidelines of Beginners, a brittle, blithely unconventional mother played by Mary Page Keller, who wore the sadness of an unfulfilling marriage like a Chanel suit. A softer, bohemian variation on that figure resurfaces here as Bening’s character Dorothea Fields, a divorced woman born into the Great Depression who studies the lurching changes of late-’70s America with the intense scrutiny of an anthropologist.
She’s flanked by two equally interesting and fully fleshed-out female characters — Abbie, a free-spirited punk photographer born in 1955, played by Greta Gerwig with a shock of crimson hair and a well of melancholy that spills over into anger; and Julie, an introspective 17-year-old experimenting with sex and self-possession, inhabited by the beguiling Elle Fanning.
Along with the actors, the strength of 20th Century Women is the multigenerational sweep of its observations, particularly the pleasing balance of its empathy for the challenges of both the single parent and the adolescent offspring, uncomfortable with all the attention being focused on his emotional development.
That would be Dorothea’s skateboarding son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), with whom she lives in a ramshackle house under constant renovation in Santa Barbara. (Nice work from production designer Chris Jones.) Abbie rents a room there, and neighbor Julie is a regular visitor, sleeping in Jamie’s room though insisting on keeping it platonic. There’s also carpenter, mechanic and potter William (Billy Crudup), a gentle soul who’s all about earthy interconnectedness and yet has never been able to find a relationship that sticks.
The movie opens with a final remnant of Dorothea’s marriage, a Ford Galaxie with a faulty engine, bursting into flames outside the supermarket. She invites the firemen to her birthday party that night, an impulse that typifies the immediacy of this post-counterculture sophisticate, who teaches her son according to her own idiosyncratic ethics but frets that her influence alone is not enough. Recognizing that Jamie and William don’t connect, she asks Abbie and Julie to help show her son how to be a good man. But he’s irked by his mother’s intervention, creating a cool distance between them for a time.
Mills uses some of the same devices as Beginners to illuminate his characters’ cultural formation, notably historic montages of their birth years or backgrounds prior to coming together. And he also glances ahead to their future lives, after the arc of the movie. But the quilting is more seamless here because the eccentricities are so integral to the writing and performances. Also because this film is so specifically rooted in its era, making the period comparisons more relevant.
One key moment has the household gathering around the TV to watch Jimmy Carter give his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which used the energy crisis as a springboard to reflect on the increasing fragmentation and self-interest of a nation driven not by community but by materialism. We all know how much lasting impact that warning had. In focusing on Dorothea’s reaction, Mills effectively takes a snapshot of that moment, before Reaganomics, AIDS, globalization, the Internet, and so many other developments came along to erase every trace of American innocence. He even co-opts sequences from Godfrey Reggio’s cine-essay Koyaanisqatsi to foretell the brewing turmoil.
Mills also uses significant books of the period to key us into his characters. Dorothea reads Watership Down and Future Shock, classics about societies under threat. As a sexually curious young woman, Julie reads Judy Blume’s Forever…, but being the child of a shrink (we see her pouting through her mother’s teen therapy groups), she also gravitates toward The Road Less Traveled.
Abbie’s work is influenced by reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and the feminist texts she lends Jamie, Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful, cause a clash with one of his peers, a macho traditionalist who doesn’t appreciate being lectured on clitoral stimulation. In one droll yet painful scene, Jamie reads an essay excerpt to his mother, hoping to unlock answers about her loneliness, only to watch her snap shut.
Divergent music tastes also get Jamie into trouble when he acquires a liking for Talking Heads from Abbie; the band’s cultivated art-rock sensibility is at odds with the hardcore punk that’s cresting. The punk subculture of the time plays a part in the dramatic ferment, and there’s a touching determination in Dorothea’s efforts to understand the raw nihilism of the music. Favoring old standards like “As Time Goes By” herself, she listens intently to Black Flag singing about going berserk in “Nervous Breakdown,” crinkling up her face and asking with hilarious earnestness, “Is that interesting?”
For a movie running a full two hours, relatively little happens in 20th Century Women, at least until lovelorn Jamie takes flight with Julie to San Luis Obispo, where he hopes their friendship will escalate to romance. But the film never feels like it’s meandering, instead assembling exquisitely observed moments that coalesce into a portrait of how our lives are shaped by those closest to us and by cultural touchstones. The brightness and warmth of the visuals echo the tone to a tee.
Mills clearly loves his characters unconditionally, which means each of them gets at least a scene or two to reveal something deeply personal. After receiving results from a post-cervical cancer checkup, Abbie learns she may not be able to have children, yielding a beautiful scene between Gerwig and Bening. Fanning is luminous as Julie talks candidly about regretting hooking up with guys half the time, but then details the little things that make the other half memorable.
While the women are the core of the film, Crudup finds a sweet lost quality in William, a man who never quite fit the hippie mold and has been searching for his place ever since. And Zumann more than holds his own among such seasoned company, bringing as much spiky intelligence as vulnerability to Jamie’s struggle with identity and manhood.
But the movie belongs to Bening, gorgeously costumed by Jennifer Johnson in effortless ’70s chic and looking like an attractive middle-aged woman, not a Hollywood version thereof. Pretty much every other character attempts to analyze Dorothea at some point, and even when they’re right, she responds with quietly tickled inscrutability. This is a woman who in some ways is open and spontaneous, but in many others unknowable. Bening gives radiant life to all her complexities. Even her solitude.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Centerpiece)
Opens: Sunday, Dec. 25 (A24)
Cast: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Waleed Zuaiter, Alia Shawkat, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Modern People, Archer Gray
Director-screenwriter: Mike Mills
Producers: Megan Ellison, Anne Carey, Youree Henley
Executive producer: Chelsea Barnard
Director of photography: Sean Porter
Production designer: Chris Jones
Costume designer: Jennifer Johnson
Music: Roger Neill
Editor: Leslie Jones
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Mark Bennett
Rated R, 118 minutes.