“20th Century Women,” a movie inspired by director Mike Mills’ upbringing in Santa Barbara during the late 1970s, invites viewers of a certain age to revisit the era of their youth. It’s an affectionate, expansive ode to the unchanging pains and pleasures of adolescent self-discovery.
The adolescent in question is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old who lives with his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), and two boarders, a New Age-y handyman named William (Billy Crudup) and a pink-haired proto-punk named Abbie (Greta Gerwig). The house itself deserves mention as a leading character: a shabbily genteel old pile, it’s the perfect backdrop for Jamie’s life-in-formation, as Dorothea enlists Abbie and William, as well as Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), to school him in the ways of becoming a decent man.
The reason Dorothea outsources Jamie’s home training will be clear to any parent of a 15-year-old. Their relationship has hit a crevasse that no amount of Dorothea’s coaxing, shouting or attempts at maternal care can help navigate.
Few films have delivered such an unsparingly accurate depiction of parent-child separation. “20th Century Women” captures not just the histrionics but the interior devastation of a mother watching her son move away from her, knowing that it’s the way life ought to be and hating every minute of it.
Jamie might be the protagonist of the movie, but the female characters are the most fully realized and fascinating. Dorothea is brilliantly channeled by Bening in a performance that’s both spiky and soft, weathered and gentle. Gerwig is also great, submerging her familiar daffy persona to portray a character on her own search for meaning and purpose.
“20th Century Women” looks at male identity through the lens of the social forces that condition it — in this case, through the portrayal of masculinity at its most self-conscious and ‘performative’ (as Abbie might say). Dorothea’s attempts to tutor her son in the ways of manhood feel organic and true, but they’re also Mills’ sly way of interrogating privilege, as Jamie tentatively explores ways, not to dominate the world, but to move through it with integrity and sensitivity.
As a celebration of personal and social history, “20th Century Women” takes the audience back. But it also lifts us up on a wave of openhearted emotion and keen intelligence. It bursts with the sad, messy, ungovernable beauty of life.
“20th Century Women”
Rated R for sexual material, some nudity, obscenity and brief drug use. 1:58. Fayette Mall, Winchester.