Mike Mills has a very distinctive style of filmmaking. He likes collages and voice overs and always makes sure to firmly establish the time and place of his work. All this is there in 20th Century Women, but it also marks a departure. This film is much more conventional than his previous work, but it still retains his characteristic biting wit and charm.

Set in the 1970s, the film follows three women, Dorothea (Annette Benning), Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) as they attempt to navigate their own lives and help to raise Dorothea’s teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). It’s a fantastic script from Mills; intellectual, but not alienating, with an offbeat sense of humour. The characters are damaged and eccentric, but also relatable as they fumble their way through their various lives, crises and misunderstandings.

Even though Jamie is our narrator, the 20th Century Women of the title are the true driving force of the film. They swirl around him, giving advice on life and love, teaching him the best way to be a man. Even with a man behind the camera, the strength of the three women on screen give the film a distinctly female voice. The result is a film that takes a hard look at how we raise our children, not as human beings, but as men and women. Surrounded by women, Jamie gets the female perspective on the world to filter through his male experience and gaze.

While an examination of gender is central to the film, the underlying theme of 20th Century Women is people’s desperation to understand one another and their inability to do so because their vision is so clouded by our own perceptions. This makes the film sound like a downer, but Mills keeps everything lighthearted, even if the end result is tinged with a hint of darkness. Like Beginners before, 20th Century Women is a delightfully entertaining film with substance beneath its lighthearted surface.