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). Unconventional Dorothea allows her son unlimited freedom, 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.
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. Despite the movie's title and Bening's central role, however, 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.