Could there have been a more confusing time than the 1970s for men and women? While some might have laughed when gender discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when the amendment became federal law, the women’s rights movement gained traction and in the next decade the changes were shaking up American culture. During that decade, a “meaningless” war that divided the country has ended, further confusing the meaning of manhood. In “Twentieth Century Women,” the question is: How does a single mother raise a young man in such a world?

“How do you be a good man? What does that even mean these days?”

Written and directed by Mike Mills (“Beginners”), the mother isn’t a young lithesome 20-something, but a 50-something woman in Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (Annette Bening, 58).

Dorothea is divorced and working at a company that is predominately male. Every morning, she sits down with her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) the kitchen table and writes down her stocks.  As Jamie describes her, she smokes Salems because they are healthier, she wears Birkenstocks because they are contemporary and she never dates a man for long.  Jamie Fields , is already romantically in love, but hasn’t revealed his feelings to the woman, Julie (Elle Fanning).

In the summer of 1979, Dorothea and Jamie are living in a once grand house (actually in the West Adams area of Los Angeles and not Santa Barbara). The house is being renovated–deconstructed and reconstructed by William (Billy Crudup), one of Dorothea’s boarders. Another boarder, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), has lost her sense of self as a woman after surviving cervical cancer.

Jamie has a platonic friendship with free spirit Julie (Fanning). Julie’s mother is a therapist and forces Julie to participate in her sessions. Julie is thrilled to attract the attention of boys and has sex which is not alway enjoyable for her. Although she sneaks into Jamie’s bed often enough and they speak frankly, she refuses to have sex with him, fearful it will ruin their friendship.

Dorothea asks Abbie and Julie to help educate Jamie about woman because he’s trying to become a man without any male role models outside of the elusive William. Abbie’s feminism class offers some help with texts that include the 1971 “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and the 1970 “Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement.” What Jamie learns about sex is more clinical than practical and out of step with his contemporaries who talk more about scoring than providing a female orgasm.

In the middle of the movie, this makeshift family gathers around the TV to watch then-President Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” (15 July 1979) in which he speaks about a country that has become too self-indulgent and consumption-oriented, as a nation the US has lost “a unity of purpose.” Carter had originally planned to speak on the energy crisis and he noted that someone had advised him, “We can’t go on consuming 40 percent more energy than we produce. When we import oil we are also importing inflation plus unemployment.”

In the end he spoke about:

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.

These changes did not happen overnight. They’ve come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy.

The anxiety of the times is apparent in the lives of Jamie, Dorothea, Julie, Abbie and William. Jamie rebels into punk music and Dorothea remains attached musically to the past. Like the house that they live in, nothing seems complete or stable and the work to repair and rehab is being done in a patchy, inefficient manner. Yet life goes on but not everyone will be there.

In the background there’s a sense of bittersweet sorrow. As we see the scenes played, we hear in voiceovers from both the mother (Bening) and her son (Zumann). In time, Dorothea informs us of her future in which she will die from cancer, adding to the malaise of the times. The great cultural shift had started in how women were perceived and not even women were totally at ease with the new concepts creeping into their lives. And who is ever ready for their death and who doesn’t regret something they’ve said or done when a loved ones dies?

Bening’s Dorothea isn’t glamorous, nor is she necessarily wise. She’s a woman who has broken into a male profession, but isn’t particularly interested in playing the female game. Her son has grown up with a meaningless war (Vietnam War 1954-1975) more and “Nothing means anything.” Still when she finds herself frustrated with her son (“I know him less everyday”), she somehow senses that what young men need most to guide them into manhood is the guidance of women and Jamie has these very different women to help him. Zumann is believable in his awkwardness and adolescent rebelliousness when he plunges into the punk music scene.

Credit the writer and director Mike Mills for this sensitive portrayal of a mother-son relationship and the nuanced performances of the ensemble. You can believe that all of these women existed and may exist still. You might even recognize a few of them in your own life.  Mills reportedly based Dorothea on his own mother who died of brain cancer in 1999. After his mother’s death, his father came out of the closet as gay despite being married for 44 years.  Mills’ 2010 “Beginners” tells a similar story with Christopher Plummer playing the elderly man finding confidence to pursue a gay relationship with a younger man, a role for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

By the end of the movie, one isn’t quite sure if the title refers to Jamie learning how to deal with women of the 20th century or if the movie is about these very women. In the end, it doesn’t matter because the world Mills and his ensemble have created seem so real and the questions raised are ones that still need to be considered. “20th Century Women” premiered in October at the New York Film Festival. It screened on 16 Nov. 2016 at the AFI FEST and will open in limited release on 25 Dec. 2016. Coming to the Claremont 5 and the NoHo 7 on 20 January 2017.

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