We begin with a mother and son running towards their car, blazing magnificently in a supermarket car park, somewhere at the end of the seventies. This is the same car that the mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) had when her son Lucas (Lucas Jade Zumann) was a baby, fifteen years ago.
The car is significant. It’s as old as Lucas’s, but its fiery demise ultimately signifies nothing. An electrical fault, a fireman explains. In thanks, Dorothea invites the firemen to a party she is holding a couple of days later. This too does not lead anywhere, but that’s not the point. We’re shown Dorothea’s free-spirited generosity and Lucas’s articulate teenage confusion.
Mike Mills’s Twentieth Century Women is a series of quite ordinary events which both have no consequence and yet are freighted in meaning. Yet it’s a pleasure to watch, and is helped along by sharp, snappy dialogue and wry humour.
The plot focuses on Dorothea’s changing relationship with Jamie, who she feels is becoming increasingly distant from her as he comes to terms with his own masculinity. She enlists Jamie’s childhood friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and one of her two lodgers, aspiring punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to help Jamie to become a good man.
This provides a vehicle for Jamie’s narrative portraits of Dorothea, Abbie and Julie, pieced together through books, objects and short vignettes. We learn that Dorothea wears Birkenstocks, read Watership Down and was inspired to carve wooden rabbits, and we learn about her night-time loneliness, her thoughts on ageing and almost-relationship with a colleague at work.
In turn, Jamie is introduced to feminist theory. His determination to be a good feminist both shows his youthful determination to do the right thing and provides opportunities for humour. He goes to the skate park and gets into a fight with a boy at over clitoral stimulation.
Twentieth Century Women is a glorious mess, and that’s all part of the charm. We don’t really care that the plot wanders, because these are characters so fully realised and beautifully acted you forget you’re in a film at all.