Early in "20th Century Women," the third feature by writer-director Mike Mills, Dorothea (Annette Bening) remarks that she knows her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) less and less every day. Her observation has little to do with him being out of control (even as it follows a dumb game that sends him to the emergency room) — he's a fundamentally decent kid — but notes the ever-widening gap between parent and child as the latter starts to find his own interests, his own path, his own voice. Jamie, for his part, will sadly narrate that his teenage years in 1979 were the peak of his knowing his mother before her death in 1999, that an openness they started to get at was never fully realized, that his son, born after his grandmother's death, won't ever fully understand what a vibrant presence she was.
That's the heart of "20th Century Women," an unusually compassionate comedy about a generational divide between parent and child, particularly between a mother and a son. As with his previous film, the Oscar-winning "Beginners," Mills his personal experience (this time with his mother rather than his father) as a jumping off point for a feature that's as much an essay film as a dramedy. Here his fictionalized teenage self, mother and friends jump back-and-forth between their past, their future and the "present" in the summer of 1979, a period where they were all important to each other before moving on in one way or another. There's a bittersweetness to what's going to happen to all of them, but as the film recognizes, it's only natural as they reach for their own happiness, eventually reaching in different directions.
Set in Santa Barbara, the film focuses on single mother Dorothea's boarding house, a home to Jamie as well as his punk photographer big sister figure, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who's recovering from cervical cancer; and middle-aged hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup), whom Dorothea and Abbie are attracted to. They're frequently joined by Jamie's best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who frequently spends the night with Jamie but won't sleep with him, despite his obvious crush. Dorothea asks Abbie and Julie to help raise her son as they each deal with personal crises and frustrations.
"20th Century Women" is a free-flowing movie, relying more on a series of anecdotes and memories than a rigid structure. What might've been shapeless in lesser hands feels lively in Mills', who takes care to pay special attention to each characters' wants and needs rather than letting their narrative function stem directly from their relationship to Jamie.
Crudup (charismatic as ever) is introduced as the unconventional family's big-hearted lunkhead, only for us to find out how lonely he's been left by his compulsive one-night stands. Fanning's cool girl act is a role-playing exaggeration of her natural tendencies, a declaration of independence that can't completely fulfill. Gerwig, confirming herself as one of the most exciting actresses to emerge in the last few years, avoids turning her character into an art school cliche, radiating sensitivity and warmth as her character still struggles to define what's next for her.
Bening, giving one of her quietest and most effective performances, lets Dorothea's pauses speak the loudest, whether she's admiring her son's relative conscientiousness compared to boys his age or taken aback by him moving further left (in comparison to her middle-of-the-road liberalism) and learning too much too soon about feminism and sex. To his credit, Mills doesn't view Dorothea as out of touch, and recognizes that for all of his good intentions, Jamie's still a kid who isn't as enlightened as he thinks he is — he still puts sexual expectations on Julie when she's looking for a friendly ear, and a late scene shows him reading a passage to his mother that he feels perfectly explicates her, only to hurt her feelings. "You think you understand me now, because you read a book?"
"20th Century Women's" strength is in recognizing that the particulars that define those close to us are often difficult to pin down beyond surface generational tastes and politics. We'll never fully know even those we're closest to in any given moment. The best thing we can do, as Bening suggests to her son trying to help a female friend, is "be there."
"20th Century Women" is available on video on demand services like iTunes and YouTube for $4.99.