My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it – Mark Twain
The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness. – Honore de Balzac
15 year-old “Jamie” (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a familiar character to Mike Mills who wrote and directed 20th Century Women, as it is based on his own upbringing. In 1979 Jamie is into skateboarding and his best friend “Julie,” but is having trouble in relating to his 55 year-old mother “Dorothea” (Annette Benning). She’s a chain-smoker who wears her Birkenstocks everywhere except when she’s in her office and lives an interesting existence. It seems she is set on restoring the old house she and Jamie live in with their two tenants. One is “Abbie” (Greta Gerwig) who is a photographer who is recovering from cervical cancer. The other is “William” (Billy Cruddup) who is a skilled auto mechanic who is doing most of the renovations of Dorothea’s house.
Feeling she is not up to the task of ensuring that Jamie will become a “good man” Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie in making sure he does. She asks that they share their lives with him since they are able to experience the world outside the home with him, while she feels she isn’t allowed to see him in that real world. Abbie is an ardent feminist and she gives Jamie books on feminism along with a copy of “Our Bodies Ourselves.”
Julie’s mother is a therapist and makes her take part in a teen girl therapy group she leads, which makes Julie believe she is capable of doing therapy on others. She tries to take a therapeutic approach as she tells Jamie about her sexual exploits. Jamie is madly in love with Julie but even though she regularly sleeps in his bed, she won’t have sex with him. She claims that friends cannot have sex and remain friends.
This is a talented cast and they make the most of exposing the depth of the characters they portray. Over the last quarter-century Annette Bening (Rules Don’t Apply) has earned four Academy Award nominations for her acting abilities and this performance is as good as any of those. Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress) also gives an excellent performance. Elle Fanning (Trumbo) nails the mixture of a young woman hardened by her experiences but still very vulnerable. As the sole adult male in this house of women, Billy Crudup is a man who attracts women easily but doesn’t know how to maintain a relationship. That seems strange considering how utterly well-adjusted he is in every other facet of his life. He makes the most of his limited time on the screen.
Added to these complex characterizations is an interesting visual presentation. Mike Mills mixes in still photos of the era related to the events unfolding onscreen along with some interesting fast-forward motion shots. The conclusion provides a very satisfying for each of the main characters.