One of the quasi-bohemians in Mike Mills’ gauzy 20th Century Women loves to document ephemera, taking photos of everything she owns. A similar instinct — archiving as art — guides Mills’ movie itself, a trip back in time in which era-specific talismans substitute for genuine thought. Though big feels glut 20th Century Women, even its emotion seems ersatz.
Like the writer-director’s previous feature, Beginners (2010), about an anomic adult son’s relationship with his newly out 75-year-old father, 20th Century Women is rooted in its maker’s autobiography. The place and time is Santa Barbara, 1979, a pivotal year for 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Mills’ surrogate, who lives with his divorced mom, Dorothea (Annette Bening); Dad resides on the other coast and is unseen but sometimes alluded to. Mother and child share an easy intimacy, curled up on the couch watching Casablanca. Unconventional Dorothea allows her son unlimited freedom (not that the straight white suburban teenage boy doesn’t already have enormous liberty as his birthright, something never really addressed here), and the kid seems all right.
But worrying about Jamie becomes Dorothea’s all-consuming project. In the enterprise of making her son “a better man,” she enlists the assistance of adjutants Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a boarder in her 20s and the aspiring photographer described above, and Julie (Elle Fanning), two years Jamie’s senior and his platonic bedmate. Dorothea occasionally turns to William (Billy Crudup), her other lodger, for help decoding her child’s current cultural passions, fact-finding that necessitates shots of Talking Heads album covers and other late-’70s semaphores.
Fleeting — and extended — glimpses of period paraphernalia aren’t enough for Mills, though. He interrupts the film to include collages of Iggy Pop and other punk avatars, scrapbooking that extends to many of the canonical tomes of second-wave feminism to which Jamie is introduced by Mother’s little helpers. Our Bodies, Ourselves is strenuously name-checked here; passages from the 1970 anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful are read aloud.
But the references seem awkwardly exploited, inserted to salute not so much Jamie’s advisers — those first female readers — as the teenager himself, a virginal boy who gets into a fistfight for becoming an evangelist of the clitoris, lecturing a dense, sex-boasting buddy about his horrible technique. Just like a Black Flag EP or a skateboard, consciousness-raising becomes a fetish item, a nostalgia-soaked bauble in Mills’ movie, which smugly (and obtusely) includes a long passage from Jimmy Carter’s infamous “crisis of confidence” speech, rhetoric that decried the consumption on blatant display in the film.
Despite the movie's title and Bening’s central role, women are oddly peripheral. Their misfortunes become Jamie’s incidental gain. Fretting over the emotional state of her son after he sat in a waiting room while Abbie received devastating medical news, Dorothea praises his valor. “I’m fine. I learned a lot,” he reassures her, acing one more test in an easy-A class.