The year is 1979. Jamie and his 55-year-old mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) live in a stately Victorian home. She's a child of the Depression, Jamie reminds us several times, but also has a hippie-ish outlook. Dorothea tries very hard to raise her son with New Age-type progressiveness. But when Jamie begins acting out by running off without warning to L.A. for punk concerts, it tests her open-mindedness. Renting rooms in Dorothea's home are 20something photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and middle-aged handyman William (Billy Crudup). Mills presents the household as a sort of "modern family" of misfits. Add Jamie's high school crush Julie (Elle Fanning), who regularly sleeps over in Jamie's room but views their relationship as strictly platonic, to the motley crew and Dorothea is convinced her son doesn't need the influence of a father. She even goes so far as to specifically ask Abbie and Julie to "parent" her son.
Again, the performances are generally nuanced enough to keep Women passably compelling, at least for its first half. Bening has a field day with chain-smoking Dorothea and her various contradictions. She expertly convey's Dorothea's conflicting desires—she simultaneously wants to grant Jamie a degree of young-adult independence and continue to exercise motherly control over his every move. As Abbie, who lives in constant fear of a relapse of cervical cancer, Gerwig crafts a vivid portrait of a young woman forced to prematurely contemplate her mortality. And despite an emerging typecasting pattern (see The Neon Demon, Live By Night), Fanning manages to find freshness in her cliched character (Julie sleeps around with boys who don't respect her, all while leaning on the sympathetic shoulder of 'nice guy' Jamie).
As the various non-starter incidents pile-up, Mills makes it clear that Women is really about the maturation of Jamie as influenced by the women around him (Crudup's William is an unnecessary distraction). But even by the end of a very long 118 minutes, its not entirely clear what Jamie has gained from his experiences. Mills makes the interesting move of allowing the characters to narrate their own futures (one from beyond the grave even), all backed by surging, pensive score. But as much as his film capably holds attention for the duration of particularly well-paced, well-acted individual scenes, the various parts do not gel. The revelations Mills strives for never arrive. By the time the credits roll it's hard to feel anything but indifference for these 20th Century characters.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray includes audio commentary by director Mike Mills and two featurettes: "Making 20th Century Women" (nine minutes) and "20th Century Women Cast" (ten minutes). Mills talks about his film being highly autobiographical and perhaps that's part of the problem. Too many inconsequential personal anecdotes without a strong narrative thread to hang them on.