Past eras come into focus gradually with the passage of time. Long dismissed unfairly as the frivolous “Me Decade” by cultural observers of every stripe, the 1970s recently have been recognized as the inspiration — if not the source — for much of today’s popular culture, especially as regards film and music. It’s hard to find a young filmmaker today not inspired by “New Hollywood” directors of the 1970s such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, and the punk rock of the late ’70s surely informs independent music of all types that thrives today.
But having enough perspective on the late ’70s to do it justice in a narrative film is not an easy task. That’s the mission of writer-director Mike Mills with 20th Century Women, a film loosely based on the 50-year-old Mills’ experiences as an early teen in the ’70s.
Unlike most semi-autobiographical films, 20th Century Women isn’t really about its creator. The story revolves around 14-year-old Jamie (Mills was 13 during the summer of 1979 depicted in the film). But Jamie’s true purpose is to inspire a trio of women — characters based on Mills’ mother and sister, along with a composite of older teen girls Mills knew at that time — to reveal themselves mostly through their evolving responses to Jamie, all set against the vivid backdrop of late-’70s cultural upheaval.
Succeeding as both character study and period piece, 20th Century Women lives up to its ambitious title thanks to deeply affecting performances from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning as three complex and unpredictable women living through uncertain times in suburban Santa Barbara, California. Some surely will find fault in the film’s slight story, especially when it begins to drag near the end of its two-hour running time. But Mills’ movie has a vibe all its own and an unmistakable sense of purpose.
A single mom struggling to raise Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) by herself, 55-year-old Dorothea (Bening) recruits a tenant, 24-year-old punk rocker Abbie (Gerwig), and 17-year-old Julie (Fanning) to help fill the void she perceives in her son’s life. Like all 14-year-old boys, Jamie seeks his own identity and fights for independence, and he’s hopelessly smitten with his longtime friend Julie. Another tenant in Dorothea’s house is handyman William (Billy Crudup), an aging ex-hippie also struggling to find his way as the world rapidly changes around him.
Mills focuses on placing his well-drawn characters in the context of those sweeping changes, a time of rebellion in which simpler ways of life seem to be disappearing forever — and one that hasn’t been depicted accurately on film until now.
Punk had just reached the suburbs, opening up new worlds of creative possibilities for misfits everywhere. Mills brings the era to life through a beautifully curated soundtrack that includes lesser-known bands like the Germs and The Raincoats. But he extends his characters' crucial relationship with music in scenes where Abbie exposes Jamie and Dorothea to the local punk club, and in a homebound scene where William and Dorothea try to make sense of the new music by dancing to Black Flag and Talking Heads, finding far more comfort in the latter.
Moments like these get to the heart of a misunderstood era, but they also manage to say something profound about the way different generations struggle to understand each other’s worlds. That is a thoughtful and generous way to look back on one’s youth.
20th Century Women starts today, Jan. 20, at the Broad, Canal Place and Elmwood Palace theaters.