Greta Gerwig dances out her angst to David Bowie. Annette Bening learns the difference between Black Flag and Talking Heads. Throw in Elle Fanning reading Judy Blume, and 20th Century Women is filled with fantastic actresses not only interacting with cultural touchstones, but playing characters trying to make sense of their life through art. Inspired by writer-director Mike Mills' own formative years, you could say that that's what he's doing too. A tale of a 15-year-old boy coming of age surrounded by influential females, Mills has called the movie a love letter to the women that raised him. We'll call it a soulful window into three ladies coping with the paths walked, rather than the ones not taken.
The year is 1979, the place is Santa Barbara, and that teenage boy in the centre, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), doesn't think he needs help growing up — but his single mother Dorothea (Bening) disagrees. Worried about the lack of male guidance in his life, and unable to get him to bond with their handyman lodger (Billy Crudup), she enlists fellow tenant Abbie (Gerwig) and Jamie's best pal Julie (Fanning) to shape the boy's blossoming persona. What follows is less a straightforward narrative and more a series of episodes as several months pass. Jamie embraces his skateboard-riding rebellious side, follows Abbie into punk as she deals with her own maternal issues, and grapples with his crush on the more sexually experienced Julie.
This isn't the first movie that the music video director and graphic designer turned feature filmmaker has fashioned from his own experiences. His previous effort, Beginners, won Christopher Plummer an Oscar for a part inspired by Mills' father. 20th Century Women oozes a similar lived-in insight. While the drama depicted mightn't appear to be anything special, his characters and the way they face their situations most definitely are. Mills' Academy Award-nominated screenplay overflows with such authenticity, sensitivity and genuine emotion that it seems like Dorothea, Abbie and company have simply walked out of his memories and onto the screen.
Of course, there's another factor at play here: when you want to make a film about remarkable women, you need a remarkable cast. 20th Century Women's lineup is phenomenal — and not just because Gerwig gets another Bowie moment after Frances Ha. She's more assured here than in her work with Noah Baumbach, but still astutely reflects the uncertainty that comes with trying to make your way in the world. But as good as Gerwig, Fanning, Crudup and newcomer Zumann may be, they all stand in the shadow of Bening. Make no mistake: the movie belongs to her as much as it does Mills.
That's not to say that 20th Century Women doesn't look and feel every inch like a Mills movie. Switching between narrators, offering up postcard-like summaries of the past, favouring artful montages, and demonstrating an affectionate eye for messy detail, the film couldn't have been made by anybody else. But it also wouldn't work as perfectly with anyone other than Bening. She owns Dorothea's past disappointments, yet ensures she still embraces whatever the future brings — and takes her cues from Mills' mother to the point that she even wears her jewellery. Bening clearly loves her character, as does her director and the entire cast of characters. As, indeed, will you.