20th Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners), is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The nostalgic drama is about the efforts of a neurotic single mother to raise her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who desperately needs a role model.
The picture’s protagonist is Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a middle-aged chain-smoker who owns the rooming house where the story is set. She recruits two considerably younger females, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to help her raise Jamie and, for some reason, ignores her handyman, William (Billy Crudup), who is actually a pleasant father figure.
Abbie tries to reach the impressionable teenager by having him read popular feminist manifestos such as Sisterhood Is Powerful. On the other hand, Julie, 17, establishes a Platonic relationship with him because they’ve known each other since they were little.
The engaging drama uses flashbacks to develop each of the lead characters’ back stories. For example, we hear Jamie thinking about life with his mother — who is fretting about her inability to understand him less and less every day. We also learn about Abbie’s concern about her cervical cancer scare, and Julie’s resentment of her therapist mother who is forcing her into group therapy sessions.
20th Century Women transports the audience back to the late 70s. The movie resurrects the era’s fashions and decor and the action unfolds against familiar backdrops of the period. In addition, the film’s score features a mix of musical artists such as Rudy Vallee, Louie Armstrong, David Bowie, and The Talking Heads.
Excellent (***½). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and brief drug use. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: A24 Films.