The writer-director Mike Mills doesn’t make movies as much as he curates experiences. Trained as a graphic designer, he draws on an entire visual vocabulary — including still photographs, montages, carefully selected production design elements and music — to evoke time, place and characters so instantly recognizable as to be almost familial.
Watching “20th Century Women,” a movie that was inspired by Mills’ own upbringing in Santa Barbara during the late 1970s, is akin to boarding a sensory Wayback Machine, inviting viewers of a certain age to revisit the now-ancient era of their youth, and an affectionate, expansive ode to the unchanging pains and pleasures of adolescent self-discovery.
The adolescent in question is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old high school student who lives with his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), and two boarders, a New Age-y handyman named William (Billy Crudup) and a pink-haired proto-punk named Abbie (Greta Gerwig). The house itself deserves mention as a leading character in “20th Century Women”: A rambling, shabbily genteel old pile, it’s under continuous construction, a life project for Dorothea, who appreciates good bones and fine plasterwork.
Encased in an exoskeleton of ever-present scaffolding, it’s the perfect backdrop for Jamie’s own life-in-formation, as Dorothea enlists Abbie and William — as well as Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning) — to school him in the ways of becoming a decent man.
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The reason Dorothea outsources Jamie’s home training will be clear to any parent of a 15-year-old. Their relationship has hit a crevasse that no amount of Dorothea’s coaxing, shouting or attempts at maternal care can help navigate. Among the many details it gets right, “20th Century Women” captures not just the histrionics but also the interior devastation of a mother watching her son move away from her, knowing full well that it’s the way life ought to be, and hating every minute of it.
Jamie might be the protagonist of “20th Century Women,” but the movie earns its title, in that the female characters are by far the most fully realized and fascinating. In addition to Bening, Gerwig gives her finest performance in recent memory, submerging her familiar daffy persona to portray a character on her own sometimes heartbreaking search for meaning and purpose. She figures in one of the most important sequences in “20th Century Women,” when Jamie accompanies Abbie on a solemnly consequential appointment. That’s when he learns — at the prodding of Dorothea — to manage his male instinct to “fix everything.”
“20th Century Women” looks at male identity through the lens of the social forces that condition it — in this case, through the portrayal of masculinity at its most self-conscious and performative. Just like Dorothea, this film is warm and funny, but willing to be tough when it needs to. As a celebration of personal and social history, “20th Century Women” takes the audience back. But it also lifts us up on a wave of openhearted emotion and keen intelligence. It bursts with the sad, messy, ungovernable beauty of life.
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup.
Writer-director: Mike Mills.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.