The writer-director Mike Mills doesn’t make movies as much as he curates experiences. Trained as a graphic designer, he draws on an entire visual vocabulary — including still photographs, montages, carefully selected production design elements and music — to evoke time, place and characters so instantly recognizable as to be almost familial. Watching “20th Century Women,” a movie that was inspired by Mills’s own upbringing in Santa Barbara during the late 1970s, is akin to boarding a sensory Wayback Machine, inviting viewers of a certain age to revisit the now-ancient era of their youth, and an affectionate, expansive ode to the unchanging pains and pleasures of adolescent self-discovery.
The adolescent in question is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a 15-year-old high school student who lives with his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) and two boarders, a New Age-y handyman named William (Billy Crudup) and a pink-haired proto-punk named Abbie (Greta Gerwig). The house itself deserves mention as a leading character in “20th Century Women”: A rambling, shabbily genteel old pile, it’s under continuous construction, a life project for Dorothea, who appreciates good bones and fine plasterwork. Encased in an exoskeleton of ever-present scaffolding, it’s the perfect backdrop for Jamie’s own life-in-formation, as Dorothea enlists Abbie and William — as well as Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) — to school him in the ways of becoming a decent man.
The reason Dorothea outsources Jamie’s home training will be clear to any parent of a 15-year-old. Their relationship has hit a crevasse that no amount of Dorothea’s coaxing, shouting or attempts at maternal care can help navigate. Few films have delivered such an unsparingly accurate depiction of parent-child separation. Among the many details it gets right, “20th Century Women” captures not just the histrionics but also the interior devastation of a mother watching her son move away from her, knowing full well that it’s the way life ought to be, and hating every minute of it.
Fans of Mills’s work will instantly recognize “20th Century Women” as a bookend for his wonderful 2011 film “Beginners,” which paid homage to his late father, Paul. Here, he lavishes his attention on a woman who came of age during the 1930s. (In his voice-over narration, Jamie explains most of her behavior by pointing out that she was “raised in the Depression.”) Dorothea also smokes menthols because she thinks they’re healthier, wears Birkenstocks and is prone to inviting perfect strangers to dinner, although, despite her outward bohemian appearance, she resists the loosey-goosey mores of the era. Brilliantly channeled by Bening in a performance that’s both spiky and soft, weathered and gentle, Dorothea emerges as a mercurial bundle of contradictions whose panic at losing her son is only tempered by her gift for lacerating observation. “Wondering if you’re happy is a great short cut to just being depressed,” she offers, in a typical aside, cutting straight through Seventies-era self-help culture. Moments later, she’s resisting the dissonance and aggression of the punk music Abbie pogoes to in her room: “Can’t things just be pretty?” she asks plaintively.
Jamie might be the protagonist of “20th Century Women,” but the movie earns its title, in that the female characters are by far the most fully realized and fascinating. In addition to Bening, Gerwig gives her finest performance in recent memory, submerging her familiar (and delightful) daffy persona to portray a character on her own sometimes-heartbreaking search for meaning and purpose. She figures in one of the most important sequences in “20th Century Women,” when Jamie accompanies Abbie on a solemnly consequential appointment. That’s when he learns — at the prodding of Dorothea — to manage his male instinct to “fix everything.” Later, Abbie gives him “Sisterhood is Powerful” and “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and he decides that, “maybe I’m a feminist.” (The movie is threaded through with pungent evocations of the era, from snippets of Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech to the strains of Talking Heads, Black Flag and the Raincoats. Mills has even gone to the trouble of re-creating one of the very first early pregnancy tests.)
Like “Moonlight” did earlier this season, “20th Century Women” looks at male identity through the lens of the social forces that condition it — in this case, through the portrayal of masculinity at its most self-conscious and performative (as Abbie might say). Dorothea’s attempts to tutor her son in the ways of manhood feel organic and true, but they’re also Mills’s sly way of interrogating privilege, as Jamie tentatively explores ways, not to dominate the world, but to move through it with integrity and sensitivity. Just like Dorothea, this film is warm and funny, but willing to be tough when it needs to. As a celebration of personal and social history, “20th Century Women” takes the audience back. But it also lifts us up on a wave of openhearted emotion and keen intelligence. It bursts with the sad, messy, ungovernable beauty of life.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexual material, some nudity, obscenity and brief drug use.