It happens from time to time, but the effect is always startling: A strong film is running along smoothly when suddenly you discover you are witnessing a classic movie moment, the sort of scene that will be talked about at the exit – and remembered for years to come.
In Mike Mills's intriguing 20th Century Women, that scene is a dinner party where one of the characters, a woman of about 30, insists on talking about menstruation and then forces the assembled guests to dispense with their cultural inhibitions and say the word along with her. Menstruation. It's really not that hard.
As performed by an aggressively deadpan Greta Gerwig in the role of the unforgiving trailblazer, with much assistance from Annette Bening as her uncertain hostess, the cringe, the comedy and the observation of the social milieu blend poignantly and potently. Perhaps the scene feels so immediately enduring because it is set in 1979 – toward the end of both the second wave of feminism and the golden age of art-house cinema – and so it plays as something already coated in a rich cultural patina.
Black Flag or Talking Heads? The Me Decade or the Crisis of Confidence? Mills, who has said in interviews that 20th Century Women is directly based on his relationship with own mother, is forcefully determined about the period detail in a film in which the characters read Our Bodies, Ourselves and listen to Devo.
Indeed, Mills is amusingly direct in revealing the setting: We know the film takes place in 1979 in Santa Barbara, Calif., because he tells us so in a little historical collage at the start. Similarly, he allows both Bening's character, Dorothea, and her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), to occasionally interrupt the action with some voiceover narration to explain their attitudes to each other and to follow the fate of the characters after the story ends. This is Mills's third feature and his second autobiographical comedy about parent-child relations (following Beginners in 2010) but Mills is 50 now and takes these narrative shortcuts with no apology and even a certain glee.
If the small domestic drama established in this rich period setting proves satisfyingly emotional, it is because the characters are acutely well observed, both by Mills's script and by his excellent cast. The solid core of the film is Bening's performance as Dorothea, an older, single mother. Confused by the task of raising a teenage son, she hands the job over to two younger women. One is Jamie's best friend, the promiscuous teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), with whom he maintains a platonic if frustrated relationship. The other is Abbie (she who delivers the menstruation talk), a searching young photographer and Dorothea's tenant in the rambling boarding house where she and Jamie live.
In Zumann's pleasant performance, the adolescent Jamie is a sensitive and sensible boy; Dorothea's parental anxiety might seem unnecessary and a bit dense were it not for what Bening makes of the character. She reveals her maternal insecurity as a partial narcissism – she is unable to face the child's separation from herself – and her emotional isolation as a chronological problem: She was born in the Depression, not the baby boom and now struggles to get with the times that Mills so lovingly recreates. At the end of the menstruation dinner party, she and her guests turn on the TV to hear Jimmy Carter describing a crisis of confidence and bemoaning the materialism of the age as Mills replays several minutes of the so-called Malaise Speech (in which, at the height of the energy crisis, the President called on Americans to park their cars and turn down the thermostat). Dorothea finds the words inspiring; the others correctly predict they spell political suicide.
As Bening exhales her cigarette smoke with a quizzical air before offering Dorothea's unusual or unhelpful responses to those around her, her incomprehension and her remove make her annoying but not necessarily unlikeable. Indeed, Bening often makes you feel sorry for Dorothea – until the actress slaps you silly. In the film's saddest moment, Jamie, now schooled in feminist theory by Abbie, diagnoses his mother's problem as the social invisibility that plagues postmenopausal women. He reaches out to her with the sensitivity she has insisted he needs to become a modern man and Bening then closes her character down brutally, as the adult firmly rejects the child's sympathy.
With this complex characterization, Bening looks like a shoo-in for a best-actress nomination come Oscar time, but she is also amply supported here with two performances that nicely capture the insecurities of earlier stages of womanhood. The wide-eyed Fanning flatly explains Julie's sex life to the sponge-like Jamie with a heart-stopping earnestness that passes for maturity. And as Abbie, Gerwig affectingly explores the confusion and pain of the thirtysomething trying to establish herself at that awkward moment when adulthood can no longer be denied.
Meanwhile, in a chameleon-like performance that is easy to overlook because the character is so accommodating to the stronger figures around him, Billy Crudup plays the second tenant in the house, the gentle mechanic William. Well-meaning but ineffectual, he's another man left to quietly puzzle over the complexities and contradictions of 20th-century women.