The crumbling Santa Barbara Victorian mansion in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women hosts an agreeably mixed bag of personalities. Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a skittish teenage boy at the threshold of all the familiar aches and pains of adolescence, Seventies counterculture style. As the combination fulcrum/catalyst of the piece, everything seems at first to revolve around him. But that, as a Zen adherent might phrase it, is an illusion. This is a story about women.
Jamie’s divorced mother Dorothea — Annette Bening, in one of the best screen performances of 2016 — is a resolutely old-fashioned (in 1979, mind you) member of the Greatest Generation and mistress of the house. She wants to advise her son in the ways of the world, so she enlists her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a dedicated “alt” feminist and pop music fan who is renting a room in the old house; and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s insecure high-school classmate and, as fate would have it, the object of his awakening sexuality. So an invigorating clash of opinions is pretty much guaranteed.
It’s easy to visualize this as a standard TV-style sitcom. The groundwork has been laid. But writer-director Mills (Beginners) doesn’t take the easy road. 20th Century Women is not at all about having fun — more likely how dissatisfied everyone is with their lives. No snappy rejoinders, in fact almost no jokes or light-hearted moments at all, just a string of self-help totems and stratagems and the will to navigate through them. We take a bath in the latter part of that long-ago century: support groups, Birkenstocks, a Ford Galaxy, punk rock, Maxfield Parrish murals, Devo, and William, the philosophical hippie carpenter who resides in Dorothea’s house while rehabbing it (Billy Crudup).
Every character aside from Dorothea seems locked in a state of permanent adolescence, although we pray, as we munch our popcorn, that they’ll snap out of it eventually. To put it all in perspective, or maybe just to throw a monkey wrench into our conceptions of the characters, they occasionally provide voiceover narration from an omniscient future. We wish Mills hadn’t decided on that. It’s been said before, but nothing in the world is quite as ridiculous as a group of fictional beings from the recent past earnestly attempting to be “modern.” Here, it’s feminism, new wave music, and that old favorite, relationship anxiety, under the microscope. The characters tend to speak to each other in epigrams, but Dorothea’s golden smile, the picture of forbearing forgiveness, saves the movie again and again.
Without Bening, the movie would join the ranks of countless nondescript coming-of-age yarns that once amused us but now are forgotten. That may also yet happen to 20th Century Women, but with Bening’s Dorothea there’s a fighting chance to break through the nostalgia maze. Her baffled but sympathetic expression, her pitch-perfect, one-woman Greek chorus approach to child-rearing, and her essential maternal wisdom add up to one of the finest performances of this past year, in any category.