The future is female in '20th Century Women,' and so is the past

Annette Bening (left) is as resplendent as ever in '20th Century Women.'

Annette Bening (left) is as resplendent as ever in '20th Century Women.' Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy of A24

How we remember someone can eventually become more important than how that person really was.

Reality softens into memory, details blur, impressions linger. In Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women, we see this through the lens of a teenage boy coming of age under the tutelage of his single mother, a modern matriarch living and loving in the late 1970s.

Raising a 15-year-old son on her lonesome and increasingly at a loss as to how she might make him a “better man,” Dorothea (Annette Bening) enlists the help of a lodger in her boarding house (Greta Gerwig) and the object of the boy’s affections (Elle Fanning). Second-wave feminist literature and Talking Heads records signify both the era and the zeitgeist, assuring us that, at least culturally, the kid is in good hands as he learns about the world around him. The setting and vibe are pure California, all sea breezes and sunshine, but not Los Angeles — that’s where these Santa Barbara denizens drive for punk shows and other nights on the town.

Mills explored similar thematic territory in Beginners, although there it was the father/son dynamic between Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor. The writer/director makes these interactions feel fondly recalled and nostalgic without going so far as to view them through rose-tinted glasses. He is clearly aware that all emotions — not just the good ones — can feel stronger now than they did at the time.

Much of this is accompanied by a semi-ambient score that sounds like something from a dream, at once vivid and hard to place, giving you the feeling that you’ve heard it before even if you’re not sure when or where. 20th Century Women itself is like that — it’s specific enough to be distinctive but hazy enough to reach you on a deep, visceral level.

To say that Bening is resplendent is more or less redundant by now, but she really is. Enlightened but just as confused as the rest of us, her Dorothea is always looking for more answers and insights. As the other two women of the title, Fanning and Gerwig come into her orbit and form a bright constellation. “I’m taking a picture of everything that happens to me in a day,” Gerwig says after snapping a quick photo of the younger woman. “I don’t like having my picture taken,” responds Fanning. “I didn’t happen to you.”

They’re the kind of lost souls who can only be found together, a familiar conceit that Mills and his ensemble (including Billy Crudup, at his best) make feel new and alive.

But the ostensible protagonist, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is the least compelling figure here. Everything he knows was passed on to him by the people around him, like he’s the sum of their shared knowledge with little of his own to offer.

“My mom was born in 1924,” he tells us as Mills plays era-appropriate archival footage; this ends up being a through-line in the film, which tells us how each main character comes into the world as well as how they leave it. Hearing this in voiceover, and seeing glimpses of the people they’ll become, is as bittersweet as perusing a photo album filled with dearly departed loved ones — and not quite caring if they weren’t as lovely as they now seem all these years later.

20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
Opens Friday, Edina Cinema