Annette Bening (left), Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig turn in tender performances.
A single mother and child of the Great Depression raising a 15-year-old son in Santa Barbara circa 1979, Dorothea (Annette Bening) has a habit of cocking her head and narrowing her eyes at young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), like he’s a math problem she can’t unpuzzle. And so, in a somewhat misbegotten plan, she enlists others to chip in with the molding and moral education of Jamie, including her twentysomething boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer who turns Jamie on to feminism and punk music; William (Billy Crudup), a hippie carpenter who can quote from Our Bodies, Ourselves; and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who is diving headlong into the sexual revolution but keeps the besotted Jamie at arm’s length.
That’s a lot of 20th-century culture clash stuffed under one roof, though clash is too emphatic a word: more like gentle friction. This lot — messy but well-meaning — is defined by their curiosity and earnest attempts to understand where everyone else is coming from, which is how you get the priceless image of Bening and Crudup, the film’s “grownups,” trying to figure out how to dance to Black Flag and Talking Heads.
Mike Mills is an uncommonly empathetic filmmaker, which may have something to do with how autobiographically close the material is. (It was inspired by his mother and sister and first loves; it makes a very fine companion piece to Beginners, Mills’ 2010 film about how his father came out late in life.) He’s an uncommonly generous filmmaker, too: The “action” (again, too strenuous a word for such an unhurried film) regularly stills for collage-like interludes that provide context for each character — when they were born, who broke their heart, what the world was like in their formative years — and this context is key to understanding how each identity came to be and, in the film’s cat’s cradle connectivity, how that identity has influenced the formation of another’s.
Does that sound too dry? Because what I mean to say is, this movie is delightful — funny and dreamy and sometimes desperately sad. An ecstatic visual stylist who started out shooting music videos, Mills doesn’t get enough credit for his distinctive script work, which prioritizes story over plot and can distill a character in a single line (“I make my own shampoo”). He’s handed Bening and Gerwig — both playing women in pain but in different ways — the best roles of their careers, and they return the favor in spades. They, and this tender, searching film, are something to be cherished.