Daringly freeform, writer-director Mike Mills’s wise, often lovely domestic comedy is first and foremost an attitude: Southern California, loose-limbed, Converse-clad and easing down the road on a skateboard. It’s 1979, and even though Ronald Reagan’s harshness is just around the bend, 20th Century Women is backward-glancing, concerned with a counterculture in self-discovery. The autobiographical film is set at a moment when bohemian sympathies and unconventional households could still give it a go. In the movie’s gorgeous Santa Barbara mansion – towering, shabby and accommodating – we feel Mills’s entire aesthetic in bloom, the one that hatched such off-kilter family portraits as Thumbsucker and Beginners.
The characters of 20th Century Women, more interconnected than most, generate a group narrative that’s just substantial enough to keep you in thrall by how uninhibited a movie can be. Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a quiet teenage boy. The three glorious women in his life wonder if he needs more structure – that’s the whole plot – but combined, they’re the best education he’ll ever have. There’s Julie (Elle Fanning, magnetically fragile), the girl who sneaks into Jamie’s bed for platonic sympathy. Downstairs, there’s purple-tinted art punk Abbie (Greta Gerwig, building up a tricky sense of empowerment), a lodger who grapples for meaning. And lastly, Jamie’s mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening, going well beyond typical indie-mom feistiness), is a chain-smoker and libertine: divorced, plain-speaking, worried. ‘She’s from the Depression,’ it’s often said of her, the words taking on a double meaning.
When 20th Century Women concerns itself with the utterly human question of personal satisfaction, it’s huggable: the kind of movie you wish more directors had the courage to grab for. (‘Wondering if you’re happy – it’s a great shortcut to being depressed,’ offers Dorothea in the script’s sharpest line.) Like many filmmakers of his generation, Mills can’t help but show off: He’s not as cute as Wes Anderson but he desperately wants us to admire his vinyl collection of the Clash, Devo, Black Flag and Talking Heads, that last band almost getting an in-film commercial. Sometimes his style gets in the way of the actors’ realness. But he’s done something extraordinary here, earned from the capital of Beginners. He redeems his nostalgia, showing us one way to grow up, eyes and ears open.
– Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out