In Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, doubt casts a long shadow. Each of the four main characters struggle to overcome insecurities over the film’s two hours. What is remarkable about Mills’ writing and directing is its ability to connect these inner demons to a time and place.

The 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) struggles to feel comfortable in his own skin, stuck in adolescence. His mother, Dorthea (a superb Annette Bening), has been divorced and alone since Jamie’s youth and filters her unfulfilled desires through countless cigarettes. Julie (Elle Fanning) rebels against her suffocating home life with sex and weed, but only finds comfort in Jamie’s friendship. And Abbie (Greta Gerwig) uses punk rock and her love of photography to support her fight against cervical cancer. Around them all, 1979 (and the progressive tendencies of the era) drifts through Santa Barbara like a haze.

Dorthea gave birth to Jamie when she was 40. “People told my mom she was too young to have me,” he says. Now 55, she begins to feel the same way. She doesn’t keep up with him enough anymore, a reality that rears its ugly head when Jamie is hospitalized for hyperventilating too fast and nearly suffering brain damage. All the other kids were doing it. “So you just went along with them?” she asks. He shrugs and sneaks back to his room.

And so Dorthea enlists the help of both Julie and Abbie to help raise him. As far as she’s concerned, you don’t need a man to raise a man. “I think you’re what’s going to work for him,” Dorthea tells them.

From this point, the film moves along episodically. Mills regularly interrupts scenes with large headings, superimposed on screen like chapter titles. The structure constantly threatens to derail the film’s rhythm. But writer-director Mills’ is deft at juggling the story’s humor and drama. Moments draw consistent laughs and occasional tears. Julie confides secrets in Jamie and shows him how to hold and strut with a cigarette “like a guy,” while Abbie shows him how to flirt, rages with him at a punk show and gifts him a heavy tome of feminist literature. In one of the film’s most hilarious moments, both women interrupt a crowded dinner to talk about menstruation. “It’s just a word, Jamie,” Abbie insists. Dorthea covers her ears.

Unsurprisingly, the film’s most interesting themes emerge from Jamie’s relationship with his mother. Dorthea’s insecurities become impossible to ignore as the film progresses. She feels detached from what is popular, unfamiliar with the isolation that comes from her son getting older. Bening’s performance in Dorthea’s quieter moments (sitting alone on her bed, pausing to gather her words) is unbelievable, and a showcase for one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Zumann, Fanning and Gerwig form an excellent supporting cast, with help from Billy Crudup as William, a free-spirited contractor living with them. 

If 20th Century Women has a weakness, it lies in Mills’ adherence to a semi-autobiographical narrative. Mills, who grew up in Berkeley and describes the film as a “love letter” to the women who raised him, doesn’t fully explore the depth of the mother-son relationship at the heart of the story. As a result, the film includes a wrap-up that describes the character’s ultimate fates and then just ends. Despite a few touching moments surrounding an emotional climax, the film feels constricted by Mills’ refusal to look beyond his immediate experiences. 

But 20th Century Women is so touching, hilarious and tender in its spirit that it’s easy to forgive its flaws. Rarely has a coming-of-age film felt so progressive and genuine. “Mom, I’m not all men,” Jamie states. “I’m just me.” Dorthea smiles knowingly. “Well, yes and no.”

Watch the trailer for 20th Century Women here:

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