In spite of the majority female cast, and the what the title of this Mike Mills title alludes to, 20th Century Women scrutinises over what it means to be a man. For at the centre of this multi-faceted drama is a coming-of-age narrative, of a teenage boy trying to find his way in life, and discover exactly who he is, and who he wants to be. What transpires is a unique, indelible slice of contemporary cinema, studying the importance of values, feminism, and understanding and appreciating women – and how all of those things can shape, and inform masculinity.

Taking place in Southern California in 1979, we enter into the chaotic abode of Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), where she single-handedly raises her 16 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), but the older he gets the less she understands him, and having given up on her lodger, and pottery enthusiast William (Billy Crudup) to be a male guidance for her offspring, she instead relies on fellow tenant – and punk – Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help show him the world. Jamie remains adamant he doesn’t need this newfound guidance, but through these three women he absorbs far more than he had bargained for.

Perhaps it’s simply down to the fact we’re dealing with an ensemble feature with a myriad of idiosyncratic characters, with a deliciously selected jazz soundtrack, but there’s a certain Woody Allen feel to this piece. It’s done so in a way that feels as though it’s merely inspired by the filmmaker’s work, avoiding any sense of imitation, which is vital. The countless, contrived pop culture references are jarring, however, with Mills seemingly intent on showing off a little in that regard, but it does help to illustrate a clear picture of the era this film is set in, which is an essential theme within this movie as we examine the way society has changed so dramatically from when Dorothea was raised, to the more free-spirited environment her son is growing up – which is what sparks the sense of helplessness on her part, as she struggles to know quite how to adapt.

20th Century WomenIt’s the character of Dorothea which makes this such a wonderful piece of cinema, with Bening turning in a remarkably nuanced performance. She portrays the role with a distinct naivety, peppered with a hint of mischief, vulnerable and yet carrying a strength only a mother obtains. I’s fascinating too to present a coming-of-age tale told through the prism of the mother, a unique perspective seldom seen in cinema as more often than not we adopt the perspective of the teenager at the heart of the tale. This works well too, for when the teenagers are being idealistic and mawkish, she responds by being pragmatic, sceptical, representing the viewer in that regard and subverting the tropes of this sub-genre whereby the kid is so often painted out as the victim, the one who is always right and it’s the adults who don’t know anything. Not in this case. He’d be better off listening to his mother.

And yet arguably the most essential thing to take away from this film is the notion that we’re all flawed, and that doesn’t miraculously change with age. Jamie is impressionable, impulsive and blissfully naïve, experiencing new things all the time, making mistakes, learning from them, falling in love and feeling desperately unhappy at times, and in pure ecstasy in others. But so is everyone else, and while Dorothea may think she has all the answers, it transpires she doesn’t – just like none of us really do.