In Manhattan, when one of his characters extolled the virtues of being raised by two mothers, Woody Allen quipped that "very few people survive one". In 20th Century Women, a teenage boy is given three, and the results are not as catastrophic as you might expect. Mike Mills' second feature is based, in part, on his own life, and set in California in 1979. Annette Bening, in a role that should have won her something but has been strangely overlooked, is Dorothea Fields, a mother with a sometimes overly cerebral approach to parenthood.
She had her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) when she was 40, and raised him alone after his father headed for the hills.
Now he's a teenager, and Dorothea feels so out of touch with things that she decides to enlist some back-up. She lives in a rambling old house in Santa Barbara that's slowly and painstakingly being done up, and rents a room to a troubled but kindly young woman called Abbie (Greta Gerwig).
She and Jamie get on well, and share an enthusiasm for punk rock, so Dorothea asks Abbie to offer him guidance. But Abbie's an ardent feminist, and soon Jamie has made his way through such radical tomes as Our Bodies, Ourselves and becomes (strictly theoretically, of course) an expert on the female orgasm.
He'd dearly love to test his new-found knowledge on his pal Julie (Elle Fanning), an unhappily promiscuous 17-year-old who sneaks into Jamie's room at night to sleep but insists that their friendship never be sullied by sex. Dorothea, reasoning that Julie knows Jamie best, asks her to be his life coach as well, but her advice proves problematic.
As does Abbie's, because Jamie does himself no favours when he recommends clitoral stimulation to the school bully, and implies that his moaning girlfriend may, in fact, be faking it.
And that's not the only reason he's picked on. Jamie is a fan of Talking Heads, which places him on the wrong side of America's punk wars and earns the implacable enmity of Black Flag enthusiasts, who call him an "art f**". "What does that even mean?" Dorothea wonders when the words are spray-painted on to the side of her car by an enemy combatant, but it looks like Jamie's going to have to figure that out for himself.
Dorothea is a wonderfully rich creation, and while Mike Mills was apparently inspired by his real mother, Bening fleshes her out wonderfully. She loves jazz music, fantasises about Humphrey Bogart and smokes like a trouper, wryly explaining that "when I started they weren't bad for you, they were just stylish". She is, in other words, a creature out of her time, and had only just got used to the flowery nonsense of the hippie movement when it's replaced by something much angrier.
Music suffuses 20th Century Women, but politics, sexual and actual, underpins the entire exercise. In one great scene, Dorothea's bizarre extended family gathers around the television to listen to Jimmy Carter's famous "crisis of confidence" speech in which he upbraided America for its mindless consumerism. "That was wonderful," Dorothea decides, while someone beside her darkly mutters "he's so f***ed".
Indeed he was, and Ronald Reagan would shortly arrive on horseback to restore the nation's faith in mindless accumulation. 20th Century Women captures a moment when America hesitated before taking a huge leap to the right, but more profoundly explores the entwined nightmares of being teenage, and being a teenager's parent. Bening's portrayal of the eccentric but endearing Dorothea is splendid, and she listens and reacts even more eloquently than she talks.
But this is an ensemble drama: Gerwig displays new range playing Abbie, Fanning's Julie is so young and raw that watching her is almost unbearable, and Billy Crudup provides a mild dose of testosterone playing William, a mild-mannered mechanic whose fear of women seems understandable in this setting.
20th Century Women
Films coming soon...
The Founder (Michael Keaton, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern); Moonlight (Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali); Hidden Figures (Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner); John Wick 2 (Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne).