Mike Mills made his first feature as a writer-director, Thumbsucker, in 2005. By some curious coincidence, that appears to have been the exact same year that his third feature, 20th Century Women, was packed in foam peanuts and left to age until it could be sprung on an unsuspecting world as a surprising, not completely unwelcome throwback to the dead epoch of mid-'00s indies. Nothing about the film would have seemed incongruous in the year or two after Garden State made such a seismic change in the American indie marketplace: not its melancholic sense of anti-humor, not its erroneous belief that the lives of well-to-do bourgeois suburbanites can and ought to be extrapolated to the population at large (boy fucking howdy, does 20th Century Women ever fail to earn its title), and especially not its fussily curated soundtrack, which exists primarily for Mills and music supervisor Howard Paar to assure us that they have very, very cool taste.

That being said, I am being a wee bit shitty, in presenting the worst face of 20th Century Women first. In fact, it is a very inconsistent movie: its bad moments are toxic garbage, but it has some very lovely moments too, and I'm fairly confident that the lovely moments outweigh the bad ones by a meaningful margin. It is, all in all, a film that I did not regret seeing, in which I consider it a definite continued step in the right direction from Thumbsucker, about which I recall nothing other than that I despised it, and 2010's Beginners, which I merely disliked.

The 20th Century women are Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), born in 1924 (the film opens, mostly, on her 55th birthday, in 1979), Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), born in 1955, and Julie Miller (Elle Fanning), born in 1962, but the main character, sort of, is a 20th Century boy, Dorothea's 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). I say "sort of", because of the five characters of more-or-less equal narrative weight who form the core of the film (the fifth is William, like Abbie a boarder at Dorothea's house, played by Billy Crudup), Jamie is the smudgiest, despite being the nucleus around which everything else orbits.

Insofar as the film has a real story, it concerns Dorothea's low-key existential panic at finding that her son has aged out of the point where she can truly understand him, and enlists Abbie and Julie to help raise him as the kind of wise new man who can face the tumults of the late 20th Century, with its revision of gender roles and new fumbling towards a more philosophical sensitivity. The irony that the film takes place on the cusp of a new flourishing of Conservatism with both capital- and small-Cs is certainly one Mills is aware of; he puts exactly that sentiment into Dorothea's mouth during one of the film's many voice-overs (mostly, but not exclusively, given to her and Jamie), in which she abruptly starts narrating from the perspective of 1999. It is a fucking horrible moment, and I pray not the reason that Mills snagged an Oscar nomination; but these are the people who gave not just a nomination, but a damn statue, to the script for American Beauty (another film deeply entwined in 20th Century Woman's aesthetic DNA), so who can tell.

But I was speaking of Jamie's smudginess. 20th Century Women, like Beginners, is a kind of pastiche-memoir, the pair of them creating a cumulative tribute to the mother who single-handedly raised Mills, and the father who only belated learned to understand. This comes as no surprise: the film is written in the cinematic equivalent of that bullshit MFA style that passes for literary fiction these days, in which "write what you know" has become code for "create an endless cascade of self-referential romans Γ  clef, in which you make no real effort to conceive of a world beyond your own asshole". My God, I'm having a hard time staying positive about this movie. I swear, I didn't dislike it. I'll try to get back around to that.

So 20th Century Women is kind of about Mills, and kind of about his mother, and kind of about the experience of being a teenager in the 1970s, which was at any rate surely an especially bad time to be a teen. It is the same story told in two directions: a mother's story of trying to mold a distant, confused, desperate son into a young man, and a boy's attempt to find self-definition, thanks to the very interesting, intellectually challenging women who fill his life. And they are interesting, more perhaps because of the performances than the writing - one thing I have to give to Mills, he's a pretty wonderful director of actors. The four central actors who aren't Zumann are all tremendously good (this is no slight on Zumann, who is deliberately marginalised as a passive character of empty reaction shots). Gerwig in particular does more here than she's ever done in a movie, as a woman whose every thought is off her recent battle with cervical cancer, and who hates that fact even more than she hated the cancer itself, and so tries to overcome her trauma by flinging herself into art and punk music. It's actually Fanning who gives what I'd call the film's strongest performance, in part because of what she has to overcome: Julie is a wildly overdone stock character in these sort of sensitive dramedy-indies, the teen girl who has nigh-constant sex, but just wants to be friends (and bed-cuddle buddies) with the horny boy lead. Somehow, and with no help at all from the script, Fanning turns that trope into a real person, all angry sharp angles and flickers of anguish that she keeps stomping out. Bening, bless her, isn't doing anything she can't do blindfolded; but then, she is Annette Bening, and even in an idling mode, she's a national treasure.

What 20th Century Women definitely has, then, is a strong cast of characters, albeit that they are very "writerly" characters - while they might well be drawn from life, they all feel like concepts being given personalities, and that's largely how the script uses them. But anyway, the characters are strong. What's done with them, maybe, is less strong. Considering that it has almost no story, 20th Century Women turns to be surprisingly schematic, running different iterations of the characters through scenarios in what feel more like experiments than incidents, the results of which are to demonstrate that Dorothea, for all her sophisticated attempt to evolve with the times, has a kernel of inflexible old-fashioned values in her that cannot accommodate the brave new world of punk rock, the sexual revolution, and second-wave feminism, no matter how gamely she tries. There's something there, all right, and Bening runs with it as far as she can. Which is pretty far, particularly given how much love and generosity Mills splashes out on the film and all his characters. It's a hell of a forgiving film, 20th Century Women: forgiving of people for trying and failing, forgiving of people for trying the wrong thing, forgiving of being too worn and scared to try in the first place. It would take a sterner cynic than I to fully dismiss the quiet, minor-key sweetness that pervades the movie.

I'm have rather less affection towards Mill's visual filigrees, which feel smashed onto the film and in some very weird, arbitrary ways - a distracting, mindless Koyaanisqatsi name-drop here; a montage of stock photos there (or there, or there) underneath some of the bland voiceover that the film is eagerly addicted to; a bookended pair of scenes in which, for no reason that I can discern, a car driving down a highway is subjected to a filter that shifts it and the world around it into a rainbow of hues. It is a very stylistically busy film, usually to better effect than the things I just mentioned (and always better than the chromatic car scene, possibly the most baffling aesthetic choice I saw in any 2016 release), particular the overall bright color scheme, suggesting something about Dorothea's self-consciously upbeat, affirmative attitude as a comforting homey thing. It's a generally over-thought piece of filmmaking, but it generally finds ways to tie its flourishes in with the feelings of the characters - maybe not in that moment, but at least as they might reflect on that moment later.

Anyway, it's all very pleasant, my slightly outraged objections to some of Mills's bad habits notwithstanding. I steadily refuse to believe it's more than pleasant, but there's joy in visiting interesting characters who have complicated feelings, played by gifted actors, and that, at least, 20th Century Woman has in spades.