Set in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1979, the easygoing, wonderfully acted "20th Century Women" is a movie about a boy and the estrogen in his life. The boy comes from writer-director Mike Mills' memories of growing up in a benevolent, amorphous, vexing, highly stimulating matriarchy. The filmmaker establishes a lovely hangout factor, at once carefully scripted and narratively spacious.
Both the characters and the actresses (and actors) are fine company. Annette Bening is Dorothea, a chain-smoking divorcee never more than 6 inches from her pack of Salems. She works in industrial graphic design and is what you might call cautiously gregarious. She's a woman of her time, yet at odds with it, puzzling over the music everyone in her house listens to (Black Flag, early Talking Heads) and worried about the health and well-being of her 15-year-old, Jamie.
Bright, sensitive, curious, the boy's played by Lucas Jade Zumann, and while he's more of a conduit than sharply etched portrait, he's every bit as good as Bening, in completely different ways. Dorothea's grand old house undergoes perpetual renovation overseen by one of her renters (Billy Crudup as the mechanically minded commune graduate, William). Another tenant, photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig, with David Bowie "Man Who Fell to Earth" hair), yearns to leave her sunny, wealthy hometown.
Dorothea and Abbie loom large in Jamie's life; the third key female in his adolescent orbit, 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), has known Jamie most of their lives and taken to sneaking up a scaffolding and into his bedroom at night -- not to fool around, but simply to talk and sleep next to a nonthreatening boy she genuinely likes. He's a respite from the sometime- and onetime-lovers she seeks out in other parts of her self-admittedly "compartmentalized" dissatisfaction.
"20th Century Women" doesn't get unduly hung up on plot, or even with the usual forward motion of a coming-of-age narrative. It's a group portrait of a makeshift family. Early on Dorothea, after a near-death experience involving her free-range son, decides to enlist Abbie and Julie as unofficial life coaches and social mentors for Jamie. Gradually his eyes and ears are opened; he discovers strange new music, "Our Bodies, Ourselves," the world outside his own hormonal atmosphere.
The characters take turns in voice-over, noting the era's trends in punk rock, the ill-fated Jimmy Carter "crisis of confidence" speech, even their own eventual fates decades in the future. I'm not sure Mills' script is better for these metaphysical flourishes; they're a little arch. But individual scenes click beautifully, and the movie refuses to make anyone a villain -- with the exception of the bully on the playground, frustrated into violence when he learns Jamie knows more about the female orgasm than he does.
Mills' two previous pictures were "Thumbsucker" (2005) and "Beginners" (2010), the latter winning Christopher Plummer his sole Academy Award. In that picture Mills used his real-life father, who came out at a late age, as the basis for a fictionalized version. In "20th Century Women" Mills does the same with his mother. Ever since she took "The Grifters" by storm, Bening has been a spectacular if often ill-used actress. Here, it's a marvelous fit of performer and role, and she makes Dorothea a dozen things at once: warm, chilly, open, wary, worldly, insecure, grave, blithe.
My favorite moment in Mills' film is just a throwaway shot, really. Dorothea's saying farewell to her dinner party guests. As the camera stays on Bening, the actress changes her intonation and attitude with each new "goodbye," taking one last second to suss everybody out, just as she's trying to figure out her son, and herself. My second favorite moment is Gerwig's Abbie trying, unsuccessfully, to keep a straight face as Crudup's William goes on, in New Agespeak, about the connection of Mother Earth to stardust. Certain aspects of the movie, notably the smooth drone of composer Roger Neill's score, work too hard at establishing a mood.
Some may find the picture rudderless; online commenters, whether they've seen the damn thing or not, have already pre-panned it as feminist propaganda. Which is like saying: "I can't handle any story dominated by unobjectified, unsimplified women."
MPAA rating: R (for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use)
Running time: 1:58