“Write what you know,” aspiring authors are always told. Filmmaker Mike Mills decided to write about his mother and the surrogate family he grew up with in Santa Barbara, California, circa 1979. 20th Century Women is a work of fiction but it’s not hard to recognize the reality that informs Annette Bening’s superb performance as a 58-year-old, chain-smoking single mom. A child of the Depression who loves Louis Armstrong and Casablanca, she can’t relate to the world of the late 70s feels that her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) needs other influences in his life. She asks her boarder (Greta Gerwig), a photographer facing cancer, and her son’s platonic but sexually precocious best friend (Elle Fanning), to help her raise Jamie. Another boarder, ex-hippie Billy Crudup, is restoring her house but isn’t much use in this arena.
Poor Jamie. He was getting along fine with his mom and now he’s bombarded with sexual matters he needn’t deal with just yet. Gerwig even gives him a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In time Bening realizes that she may need reeducation even more than her adolescent son.
Writer-director Mills was an award-winning graphic designer before he turned to filmmaking with Thumbsucker and Beginners (which was inspired by his father). He has fun with this movie’s color scheme and inserts black & white photo collages to accompany the first-person narration that appears from time to time, giving his characters the odd ability to tell us how their lives will unfold in the future. But I grew impatient with 20th Century Women and its self-absorbed characters.
The film is at its best when it focuses on Bening, who embraces all the contradictions of her character and makes them real. She expresses wordless love, anger, puzzlement, and so much more. The other actors all do good work but their characters seem more like an author’s construct than real people.
Ultimately, the value of 20th Century Women is that it provides Annette Bening with a prime showcase. If you’re a fan, it’s worth seeing just to watch her grapple with this challenging character.