Writer-director Mike Mills has had an extraordinary cross-disciplinary career, which has encompassed music videos, graphic design for bands such as Air and the Beastie Boys, two previous feature films and playing guitar and performing background vocals with a short-lived indie rock band.
He is also a disciple of systems artist Hans Haacke’s school of institutional critique that looks at the socio-political implications and context in which any work of art is situated. Keep that in mind while watching his movies.
As a filmmaker, he makes wise, engaging, warm films that subtly examine how the past with its social climate influences the present day. He has a sponge-like capacity to absorb a wide array of influences that permeate his comic dramas.
His second film, “Beginners,” earned Christopher Plummer a long-overdo acting Oscar. It focused on the story of Mills’ late father, who after the death of his mother, came out as gay and enjoyed a liberated lifestyle in Los Angeles until he died of cancer.
In the more fascinating corners of that movie, however, seen in flashbacks, was Mills’ Jewish mother, a tart, somewhat sad and ironic woman (as she must have been to knowingly marry a closet gay) played Mary Page Keller. She seemed to deserve a movie of her own.
Now she has one, more or less, in Mills’ “20th Century Women,” a portrait the filmmaker acknowledges to be based mostly on his late mother. Although, as the title indicates, you are going to get more than one 20th century woman in this movie.
The burden of autobiography is less apparent here as Mills has seemingly discarded the Jewishness, unless I missed it, in this complex character, played with brilliantly realized emotional shading and sagacity by Annette Bening. She is also now a divorcee in late’-70s Santa Barbara, a refugee from a disappointing marriage but no longer to a gay man.
Her character, Dorothea Fields, a child of the Depression and furious chain smoker, is flanked by two equally interesting and complex female characters — Abbie, a punk photographer played by Greta Gerwig with a shock of red hair and a gift for melancholy, and Julie, a restless, sexually active 17-year-old blonde played by a graceful Elle Fanning.
Dorothea is trying to raise her skateboarding son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) with whom she lives in one of those ramshackle Santa Barbara houses under constant renovation that has long since disappeared from that Southern California community by the sea under a tsunami of super rich.
But at this moment, in 1979, the household consists of a mother and son dwelling in a constant quandary over proper parenting techniques, two boarders at loose ends, plus a girl next door that every heterosexual adult male viewer only wishes he once enjoyed — well, that is, up to a point.
Abbie rents a room in the house while neighbor Julie is a regular nighttime visiter to Jamie’s upstairs bedroom to talk over her complicated relationships with guys. She confesses that half the time she ends up sorry she went to bed with them. (Meaning, of course, that half the time she is not sorry.) With the much younger Jamie, though, she insists on keeping their relationship platonic, a source of constant anxiety to him but one he tolerates since he is in love with her.
There’s also a handyman/mechanic boarder, William (Billy Crudup), a soulful artist (he’s into pottery) who works on the home renovations and talks about making connections yet seemingly can never do so very long with women, which includes Abbie and eventually Dorothea herself.
Thus, Mills offers not just a portrait of his mother and his relationships with her and other interesting women of his life growing up but a look at the music and zeitgeist of the period that manages to reveal the intimate inner lives of his characters.
Abbie plays punk music and Dorothea, who prefers old standards such as “As Time Goes By” of “Casablanca” fame, genuinely tries to listen to Black Flag’s nihilistic songs but can only ask with an edge in her voice: “Is that interesting?”
Then Talking Heads comes into the household, this provokes a graffiti attack on Dorothea’s car. The source of the attack is never identified, but in both of Mills’ autobiographical films graffiti plays a role as part of the same continuum of communication that design and photomontages of pop and political images of the era do.
The use of such images to provide insight into characters is lighter and less didactic here than in “Beginners.” Nevertheless the characters in each film struggle getting their points of view across.
“I know him less everyday,” Dorothea says of her son. With this in mind, she enlists both the females constantly in the household, Abbie and Julie, to help her in raising her boy correctly. It takes a … household.
Everyone talks to Jamie, offers him feminist books and argues points of view. Indeed this is a very talky movie. The characters explain themselves to each other — and viewers — frequently.
Normally, this might be a flaw in a film’s narrative design but Mills uses this to peek inside everyone’s head, to evaluate the shifts in moods and perceptions of his characters.
I can’t say enough about the six main actors in this portrait of a kind of communal life. Bening seems to be getting much of the critical praise (and perhaps nominations), which are well deserved as she inhabits this enigmatic character with the full force of her intelligence, beauty and wisdom.
Everyone takes a crack at guessing what makes Dorothea tick but she may be a mystery even to herself. Certainly when anyone gets close to the mark, she shuts down. Somehow life has disappointed her but she maintains hope.
Scenes of her forays into modern pop culture, at nightclubs or listening to records, brim with an openness to new adventures even though you suspect she’ll again encounter disappointment.
Yet this film is truly an ensemble piece.
Gerwig has always been something of an indie icon but here she moves into the new and fascinating territory of a more mainstream movie as a woman who questions everything but accepts no answer at face value. She must explore on her own and is unafraid of mistakes.
Fanning’s Julie, the child of a shrink (who makes her attend her teen group therapy sessions!), needs a friend to consult and console and that friend is Jamie. She is too close to him to have sex (inappropriate, in any event, with their different ages that seem much greater than two years), but she almost yields rather than lose him.
This triggers in a rather plotless movie the one major story development — Julie and Jamie running away briefly in his mom’s VW beetle to San Luis Obispo. Expect no “It Happened One Night” though.
Men might easily get lost in such a female-centric film, but Zumann catches just the right mix of confusion and determination in a boy struggling to be a good guy and to satisfy the demands of the divergent women in his life.
Same too with Crudup, a gentle man most at home working with his hands but never fully comfortable with women despite the fact they are attracted to him with moth-to-flame-like regularity.
The film brings you up to date on all its characters in contemporary times, to what happens to them and, in one case, the final hours. Mills gets just the right bittersweet tone here, one that might encourage repeat visits to that ramshackle house in Santa Barbara and the “family” that once inhabited it.
Opens: January 20, 2017 (A24)
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Modern People, Archer Gray
Cast: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Waleed Zuaiter, Alia Shawkat, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill
Director-screenwriter: Mike Mills
Producers: Megan Ellison, Anne Carey, Youree Henley
Executive producer: Chelsea Barnard
Director of photography: Sean Porter
Production designer: Chris Jones
Music: Roger Neill
Costume designer: Jennifer Johnson
Editor: Leslie Jones
R raring, 118 minutes.