In 2011 writer/director/graphic designer/artist Mike Mills made “Beginners,” a moving homage to his father who came out at age 75. Mills looks to family again with his latest, “20th Century Women.” Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, “20th Century Women” looks poignantly to growing up in Santa Barbara, circa 1979. The filmmaker paints a glowing portrait of his mother and the extraordinary diverse women who helped shaped his growth into manhood.

Dorothea and Jamie of ‘20th Century Women’

After being lulled by the waves of the Pacific Ocean under a Santa Barbara, 1979 caption, the film then cuts to a burning Ford Galaxy in a grocery store parking lot.

The car belongs to Dorothea (Bening) and her son Jamie (Zumann), and it burns because it’s old, not from some arsonist action. In the moments that follow we learn quick insights into mother and son’s personalities and relationship. Realizing she’s out of sync with her teen son, Dorothea sets upon a plan – enlist other women in their inner circle to help Jamie become a man.

Diversity of women as mentors

Although a 50-year-old, single mom, Dorothea would like nothing better than her home restoration workman William (Crudup) to be a role model for Jamie, there’s absolutely no connection between the two. So instead, Dorothea enlists the help of boarder Abbie (Gerwig), a photographer with cervical cancer, and Jamie’s teen friend Julie (Fanning), a young, sexualized woman on the edge of adulthood.

Although struggling with their own issues, Abbie and Julie have distinct takes on what it means to live, love and grow up in 1979, an era faced with the energy crisis, the Iran hostage crisis, Three Mile Island, Punk music, etc. Yet, Jamie’s relationships with those surrounding him, including that of his mother, have an indelible (and positive) effect on him as a man.

Mills and his talented cast

Mills exhibits a unique voice in his filmmaking talents. He has the wonderful ability to make very personal memories, in this case a love letter to his mother and women like his mother, extremely relatable. His way of playing with time, remembrances and even voiceovers create a collage of emotional connections often lacking in films of late.

His women aren’t cookie-cutter cutouts, either. Bening praises Mills’ writing in the film’s press notes, “So often in storytelling women are two-dimensional stereotypes, but Mike writes about women as full-fleshed, complicated human beings.” Indeed. It’s no surprise too that with exemplary writing Bening, Gerwig and Fanning shine in their roles, as do Crudup and Zumann.

Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his performance in “Beginners.” Might Annette Bening do the same portraying Mills’ mother – she’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe Award? Time will tell. But look for this film to be placed on many year-end best lists.

“20th Century Women” is 118 minutes and Rated R and opens December 28 in Los Angeles and New York before it will expand nationwide.

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