The last time the writer-director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”) made a drama about one of his parents, the result was a screwball triumph. In “Beginners” (2010), he told the story of his father (played by a deliriously unbound Christopher Plummer), who came out as gay at 75, the very same week he was diagnosed with cancer (you can’t make this stuff up), which didn’t keep him from living out 40 years’ worth of repressed desire, all to the awestruck agitation of his son (Ewan McGregor). “Beginners” was about several different kinds of liberation, and it was a minor marvel of whiplash wit and empathy. So the bar is set high for “20th Century Women,” Mills’ first feature since then, in which he now tells the story of his mother, played by Annette Bening, who at 58 looks perky and wise, and every bit her age, and glorious.
“20th Century Women” is set in Santa Barbara, Calif., during the summer of 1979, and the movie is pinpoint authentic about the signposts of that era: the short shorts and halter tops, the Ford Mavericks and Galaxies and aging VW Beetles, the early use of words like “compartmentalize,” and what it looked and felt like when the Clash and Talking Heads and Devo were leaking into the mainstream, and sleeping around was the new middle-class normal, and a girl could cut her hair like David Bowie and streak it bottle-red without coming off like a freak, and feminism had lost its militant edge but was now (more than ever) remaking the world, and rock clubs were desultory dungeons that still seemed like the most exciting places on Earth because anything could happen in them. As a state of mind, 1979 was the last moment of calm before the counterrevolution — the takeover of the culture by money fever, fashion, and Reaganite unreality — and in “20th Century Women,” Mills gets a lot of that right. But not all of it.
The factor that complicates the movie’s authenticity is that even though “20th Century Women” is an original piece of work, Mills’ dialogue still makes it sound like he’s adapting some novel of disaffected whimsy by Michael Chabon. His writing is always on — on point, on the nose, on the joke. That worked in “Beginners,” because the Plummer character was such a card (he was always on), and it works like a charm with Bening, who puts the perfect jaded spin on lines like, “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.” But the movie is also the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) — i.e., the curly-haired lost-puppy Mike Mills character — and the two young women in his life: Julie (Elle Fanning), his 17-year-old best friend, who comes over to snuggle in bed but refuses to get sexual with him; and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the rouge-dyed Bowie-head, a passionate and aimless 24-year-old art photographer who’s renting the room upstairs. At moments, these two could almost be Jamie’s sisters, because Mills writes the kind of entertaining but promiscuously clever repartee that makes everyone seem a little too glibly like “family.” Try as he might, his voice isn’t the voice of the lackadaisical late ’70s — it’s the voice of knowing indie adorableness.
The best thing about the movie is Bening’s performance as Dorothea Fields, who’s portrayed as a very particular kind of contradictory free spirit. Divorced and proud, with a lot of heart and soul but even more over-sharing flakiness, Dorothea lives with Jamie in a big ramshackle Victorian house that she’s having renovated (a process that looks like it’s never going to end; in fact, it looks like it’s barely going to get started). She says whatever’s on her mind, and that marks her as a spiky counterculture type — though she isn’t nearly as receptive to what’s on everyone else’s mind. Bening nails that narcissism, and makes Dorothea a moonstruck charmer because of it. The character is 55 years old and, on some level, still stuck in the world of “Casablanca” and dancing cheek-to-cheek. She’s a chain-smoker who thinks smoking won’t hurt her because it wasn’t dangerous when she started (it was romantic), and she’s devoted to the stock market, obsessing over IBM and Xerox. When she hears a punk song by the Raincoats, it makes her just about break out in hives. Bening plays her as a rigid free spirit, a control freak in Birkenstocks.
The movie’s rather grandiose title is the tipoff to what Mills is up to. Jamie, a loner who likes to skateboard around town, is haunted by the absence of his father and the overwhelming embrace of his mother. He’s a passive agent — and not, in the end, a very electrifying character. But “20th Century Women” is about how he’s groomed and nurtured by the eruption of contemporary femininity around him. Dorothea, a didactic nonconformist, insists on writing fake notes so that he can skip school, and Abbie, a survivor of cervical cancer, gives him a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which becomes his bible, along with other circa-1970 feminist texts, which we hear snippets of on the soundtrack. The book cues him to the mysteries of the female orgasm (which inspires a local skate punk to beat the hell out of him).
Jamie is being lured into the world of women. Yet he’s also trying to break free of the oppressive orbit of his mom. The movie nails the dawn of the era when both sexes were striking down barriers but, at the same time (and maybe in reaction against that), working their way toward the idea that they really inhabit different planets. Gerwig neatly embodies this transitional moment, playing Abbie the troubled rebel with a fascinating blend of vulnerability and alienated aggression. Fanning, on the other hand, makes the precocious Julie too snappishly cool and self-absorbed.
Mills is a spirited, let’s-try-it-on director who, at times, goes for a mixed-media approach. He shoots long car journeys with psychedelic color separation (catchy, even if it’s not clear why he’s doing it), and at several points he has the narration leap into the future, describing what will happen to the characters in the years to come (even, in one case, their death). These grabby techniques work, but it should not go without mention that “20th Century Women” has no plot at all. None. Zero. I’ve always gravitated to movies, from Altman to Linklater, that echo the ramble and sprawl of life, yet there’s a difference between working without a narrative net — which requires daring and skill — and simply pinning scenes together without a spine. “20th Century Women” is an endless chain of anecdotes, and though many individual moments are winning, the movie as a whole is rudderless. It never achieves an emotional power surge.
There’s one other major character, the handyman who’s working on the renovation, played by Billy Crudup as a droopy ’70s burnout-survivor who sleeps with Abbie and falls for Dorothea. Yet even that combustible situation leads nowhere. One only has to think back to the beautiful rounded drama of “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), which was Bening’s last great film, or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), a coming-of-age movie that pierced the soul of adolescence, to see that finely carpentered storytelling needn’t be the enemy of truth. Mills is a gifted and lively filmmaker, and bless him for having the confessional moxie to want to pour a version of his life onto the screen, but “20th Century Women” could have used a little more movie and a little less diary.