Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women” is trying to be too profound for too many different people. It aims to encapsulate the life experience of men and women, adolescents and adults, mothers and daughters, yuppies and the ordinary. And it does so in a string of literary axioms and bluntly illustrated anecdotes. It attains higher meaning only in doses, a result of a smattering of smartly written scenes and thoughtful performances. But it’s never universal, namely because it’s trying too hard to be.
The three women in teenage Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) life are his divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his wants-to-be-much-closer-yet-still-platonic best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and his mother’s 30-something roommate who acts like a cool, older sister Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dorothea senses that because he doesn’t have a strong male presence in his life, what Jamie really needs is a stronger female influence.
Their individual advice might be more memorable if each one weren’t a fortune cookie of wisdom one after another. Even the way in which these sentiments are illustrated become repetitive and compartmentalized. Each cast member gets a turn to narrate his or her autobiography. They point out a series of mundane objects that shaped them, and Mills shoots each alone on a blank white backdrop, rapidly cutting between each. He isolates this image and uses it as a symbol for all of life at that time, even though it’s nothing more than a mug or an action figure. But it doesn’t matter if these details never return, or if they seem to conflict down the line. They feel significant in that instant.
There’s the moment when Jamie tries to get close to Julie in bed, or when Abbie hijacks a conversation by trying to remove the stigma from the word “menstruation,” or when Dorothea awkwardly tries to dance to the hip, cool music of the day. Her choices are Black Flag or the rival “art fag” music by the Talking Heads. And yet these moments stand out because they’re not strictly reliant on Mills invoking ‘70s nostalgia and pop culture, like one in which the scene earns its emotional heft from Jimmy Carter’s words atop a montage of Santa Barbara waves and coastal liberals celebrating.
None of this may matter, because if even one of Mills’s anecdotes resonates, the movie will have done its job. Bening, Gerwig and Fanning collectively channel complex and conflicting sides of femininity. Bening feels masterfully authentic as he meticulously plays with her hair, dangles a cigarette or puts her whole body into a sarcastic side-eye gesture. Fanning uses the opportunity to prove she can be sullen and cynical instead of radiant and charming, but her performance is nuanced enough such that her sunnier side finds a way through.
Mills’s “Beginners” shares the quirk of “20th Century Women” and aims for the same profundity in mundane objects. But that film had a stronger narrative and emotional through line and didn’t just feel like a collection of ideas made to signify all of the 20th Century and all women.
2 ½ stars