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Self-help maxims urge us not to play supporting characters in the movies of our own lives, but Mike Mills has made an oddly gratifying film career out of doing just that: In 2011’s bittersweet indie Beginners, his onscreen alter ego Ewan McGregor nearly disappeared in the outsize shadow of his flamboyant father, a man finally coming into his true sexuality at 75. That role won Christopher Plummer an Oscar, and Annette Bening may be on her way to one for 20th Century Women, a sort of companion portrait based on Mills’ own equally colorful mother.

As Dorothea, a chain-smoking first-wave feminist struggling to raise her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), alone in late-’70s Santa Barbara, she chooses the road less traveled. Or at least a house more crowded, filling their ramshackle Victorian with boarders — including Greta Gerwig’s cherry-haired photographer and Billy Crudup’s lost-soul handyman — who become friends, lovers, and surrogate parents, not always deliberately or in that order. Plotwise, Women is a wisp; as a mood piece, though, it’s almost irresistibly rich. Mills, who began his career in music videos, saturates the soundtrack with underground icons (one of the movie’s best scenes turns on a heated Black Flag–vs.–Talking Heads debate) and captures the shaggy, sun-dappled essence of ’70s Southern California in nearly every frame — a wry, tender tribute not just to a beloved parent, but a lost era. A–

20th Century Women
  • Movie
  • 118 minutes