In Santa Barbara, CA, circa 1979, adolescent boy Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) is screwing around with his pals when he passes out and is rushed to the hospital, where he later awakens to the sight of his exasperated mother Dorothea (Annette Bening). A single mom who fears she's becoming more and more disconnected from her son, Dorothea calls on two young women, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to become more involved in Jamie's upbringing.
Writer-director Mike Mills' 20th Century Women finds this to be an eye-opening and challenging experience for all involved. The free-spirited photographer Abbie, who also happens to be a tenant of Dorothea's, introduces Jamie to the L.A. punk scene and teaches him about love, but it's Abbie's battle with cervical cancer that most shakes the young man. Meanwhile, Jamie has long been in love with neighbor Julie, who deeply cherishes their friendship and isn't so keen on taking their relationship to that level. There's also William (Billy Crudup), the ever-present handyman also navigating his way through this crazy and complicated time.
Given the era in which it's set and careful attention to dialogue and character detail, 20th Century Women often has the feel of something Norman Lear would have produced in his prime. It's a more compelling picture overall than Mills' breakout success Beginners, which was carried heavily on the shoulders of Christopher Plummer's exquisite, Oscar-winning turn, even if 20th Century doesn't sport a performance quite on that high level. The acting is still fine all-around, however, with Gerwig and Fanning both terrific in rich, intriguing roles.
Then, of course, there is Bening, truly the heart of the film, in perhaps her most memorable turn since The American President more than two decades ago. It's a warm, funny, lived-in performance that in most years would be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. While it won't be this year, someday, inevitably I would hope, this marvelous actress will at last take home the golden guy.