20th Century Women ★★★★½

Writer/director Mike Mills makes idiosyncratic and intensely personal films. In his 2010 film Beginners, he told the fictionalized story of his father, who came out at age 75. In this film, his emphasis is most likely on his own mother, by conflating her story with the coming of age of her 15 year old son in 1979 Santa Barbara, utilizing incidents that are so novel and true to life that they can only be autobiographical.

A film like this can live or die by the casting. Here Mills truly lucked out. To play Jamie, his youthful personal avatar, he found Lucas Jade Zumann, age appropriate (14 at the time of filming), superbly capable young actor. But even more important, he snagged Annette Bening, one of greatest film actresses of our time, to play Dorthea...55 year old divorcee and single mother. Dorthea owns this large old house, in which she has installed roomers (vividly played by Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup). Added to the mix is Julie, a neighboring 17-year old girl played by Elle Fanning, burnishing her reputation as an ingenue with beauty and brains. Julie and Jamie are platonic best friends.

The plot is a series of incidents from "Jamie's" life as a teenager in mild revolt against his mother, who is struggling to understand and guide her son while feeling out of the loop of the current Zeitgeist. To help her cope with her son's growing pains, she enlists the aid of her much younger roomers, to unpredictable and amusing results. The ambitious script broadens to encompass the entire culture, artistic, political, sociological of the late '70s, mainly through the music, film and literature trends these quirky characters observe at the time. The songs of the era, which are cleverly made organic with the plot, have a real role in telling the story. Bottom line, this is a wonderfully directed and acted film that is smart and illuminating of its time and place. Highly recommended.

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