20th Century Women’ presents a portrait of femininity

Annette Bening and Billy Crudup take a ride.
Photo: A24 / Courtesy

Four stars

20th Century Women Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann. Directed by Mike Mills. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.

Its title aside, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is about masculinity nearly as much as femininity—in particular, how the latter can shape and influence the former. Inspired by the writer-director’s own upbringing, the movie stars Lucas Jade Zumann as Mills stand-in Jamie, a teenager raised by his single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in 1979 Santa Barbara, California. Dorothea isn’t content to raise her son on her own, though, and in the absence of any paternal figures (Jamie’s long-absent father is mentioned only briefly in a flashback, and never seen), she recruits two other women to help ensure that her boy grows into a good man: Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something photographer renting a room from Dorothea; and Julie (Elle Fanning), a neighbor and Jamie’s best friend from school.

The question of what, exactly, makes for a good man, from the perspective of the enlightened women of the late 1970s, is central to the film, but Jamie himself isn’t really the main character. Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners) has crafted a loving tribute to the women in his life, and all three of Jamie’s would-be maternal figures are fascinating, fully realized characters. Mills uses voiceovers and flash-forwards to provide a full sense of the lives of various characters, not only showing the difficult but fulfilling futures they have ahead of them, but also giving the movie an elegiac tone, illustrating how even the closest bonds can dissipate given just a bit of time and distance.

Mills’ storytelling acumen is matched by his three lead actresses, who deliver complex and emotionally rich performances. Jamie’s life is better and more complicated for the women around him, all of whom do their best and none of whom have easy answers. The movie doesn’t, either, but it makes the journey toward seeking them poignant and rewarding.

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