This is a case in which the cast and certain sequences are better than the film as a whole, which was showcased at the 2016 New York Film Festival and now has been released. Writer-director Mike Mills creates in “20th Century Women” a rambling story, set in 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, about a group of characters affecting one another in various ways. It takes a while to become involved with them, and intermittently there are penetrating observations or scenes that are very funny, and the excellent actors bring the situations to life.
The film is really more about 15-year old Jamie, effectively played by Lucas Jade Zumman, than the females around him and influencing him. And yet as it moves along the film also delivers on the title. Jamie is being raised by his mother, Dorothea Fields, who is divorced and trying her best as a single mom.
Dorothea is played by the ever-wonderful Annette Bening, and we get to sympathize with her as a woman unable to loosen up, having problems dealing with the world around her and needing to find a suitable new mate, although the later prospect doesn’t seem high on her agenda.
Dorothea runs a boarding house, and Wiliam, a handyman and tenant doing a construction overhaul on the house, gets hot for her. Billy Crudup portrays William with incendiary libido.
Meanwhile, 17-year-old Julie, provocatively played by Elle Fanning, is a friend of Jamie and she likes to come into his room and snuggle with him. As you can imagine, this is a great temptation for Jamie, but she only offers friendship, and it is tough for him to endure such proximity without yearning to have sex with Julie, a veritable c—k teaser whether she realizes it or not.
An important tenant is Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, a 24-year-old photographer and ripe for sex with William. She attempts to educate Jamie about women, to the extent of giving him the book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” It is more confusing than enlightening for him. (It reminds me of an experience I had when I was about eight and my divorced single mom with the best of intentions gave me a book about how babies were born. But it only started with the fertilization of the egg, and I was the laughing stock with my buddies in the fields where we played when I sad, “Guys, we have it wrong—you don’t have to f—k to have a baby.”)
The best moments of the film concern Annette Bening’s performance as Dorothea, when we observe her subtly grappling with her life, and watch the adjustments and transitions that are occurring.
The film adds up to a vehicle for such moments, as well as our getting to know the others, even though the story creeps along and even annoy at times. An A24 release. Reviewed December 28. 2016.