"We are a generation of men raised by women,” sneered Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. To which Mike Mills would probably reply, “I know! Awesome, right?”
Mills’s new movie is called 20th Century Women, and it’s just as much a celebration of female wisdom, power, and complexity as the title suggests. It’s set in 1979 Santa Barbara, and told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who’s being raised by his middle-aged single mom, Dorothea. If that setup makes you worry for a moment that this is another story about women from a male perspective, you’re not alone.
But thanks to a ferocious, textured performance from Annette Bening as Dorothea, and Mills’s digressive, empathetic script, the movie works. Dorothea isn’t the only lady in Jamie’s life: There’s also Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a rebellious photographer who rents a room in Dorothea and Jamie’s big ramshackle house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a 19-year-old neighbor who sneaks over regularly to lie next to Jamie in bed and chat, tormenting his not-so-nascent hormones.
As far as male role models go, Jamie has to make do with Billy Crudup, perfectly cast as a disarmingly handsome handyman who also lives in the house. Together, these four guide Jamie through his typical coming-of-age moments, rendered with atypical charm and smarts by a fantastic cast and a writer/director who’s really come into his own. The movie has exploding cars, Talking Heads songs, multiple heartbreaks, and, memorably, Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech—which, on its own, is worth a half hour of your time:
Mills’s previous movie, Beginners, was based on his father’s late-in-life coming-out, and it earned Christopher Plummer an Oscar. 20th Century Women is inspired by his mother, and if Bening also gets an Oscar, it would not only be well deserved, but also some kind of a first in film history. It’s not fair to say that Bening has operated in the shadow of her husband, Warren Beatty, given the fact that her career has been more vibrant and compelling than his ever since their paths crossed in the early 1990s with Bugsy. (When, in November, she showed up in up in Beatty’s tepidly received Howard Hughes flick Rules Don’t Apply, it seemed she was the one doing him a favor.)
Early in 20th Century Women, Dorothea could be written off as the typical movie version of an idealistic-but-flawed bohemian parent: When her Ford Galaxy abruptly catches fire in a grocery store parking lot, she reacts with more bemusement than shock, then invites the firemen back to her house for dinner. Dorothea isn’t just some ex-hippie trying to balance a hedonistic, anti-authoritarian worldview with the responsibilities and anxieties of parenthood. Well, she is, but she’s also a well-rounded individual with a definite biographical history, some of which is related in flashback-voiceover form.
At the same time, despite its peculiarities, the relationship between Dorothea and Jamie is all but universal, and should ring emotional bells for any adolescent becoming aware of a parent’s interior life (or vice versa). It’s a hard thing to pull off without descending into sap, but Mills, even more so than in Beginners, avoids that pitfall, often by having the supporting characters puncture any pretensions that threaten to swell up. Mills isn’t reinventing the wheel here, and it remains to be seen if he can make a memorable movie without drawing on his folks’ lives, but all the same, 20th Century Women is a smart, funny, warm winner capable of staving off the January blues.