Watching 20th Century Women—which the director Mike Mills calls “a love letter to my mom and sisters” in the late ’70s—I couldn’t help but think, This movie is so now. Annette Bening, 58, plays Dorothea, a resilient single mother on a mission to better raise her son, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann). She enlists her artistic tenant, Abbie (Greta Gerwig, 33), and Jamie’s crush, Julie (Elle Fanning, 18), to teach him about love, punk music, and the female orgasm. (You know, the essentials.) What we get is a hilariously honest portrait of three women at different stages in life. I sat down with the stars to talk about love and feminism.
GLAMOUR: Elle, in one scene your character schools Dorothea, who is 40 years her senior, on how to pick the right guy.
Elle: I was so nervous. Every character had her scene with Annette, and that was mine!
Annette: You’re sweet.
Elle: The feminism was just all-encompassing on our set. Once on a film I had a 7 P.M. call time, and I came back at 7 A.M. and my doorman said, “Oh, you’re wearing the same clothes you left in.” I told Annette that story, and she was like, “Wow, he would never have done that to a guy.” She helped me start to see things like that.
GLAMOUR: This film touches on all types of love: romantic, platonic, familial. Annette, you’ve been married [to actor Warren Beatty] for almost 25 years. Are you still learning about love?
Annette: There are tons of surprises and gifts that come along with choosing to stay together. And I say “choosing” because it’s a choice, not a virtue. Everyone who stays together feels for people who break up, because everybody could break up.
Greta: I’ve been with Noah [Baumbach, the filmmaker] for, what, five years? I always think about that line in the movie The Future. This couple who has also been together for around that long says they’re in the middle of their relationship, and this man corrects them and says, “No, you’re in the middle of the beginning.”
Annette: It’s so true, because you never really know where you are [in your relationship], no matter how committed you are.
Elle: I’m struggling in that department. Dating is hard!
Annette: It’s all hard.
GLAMOUR: We see plenty of sex in the film—for all of you.
Annette: For women my age! You never see stories about women’s sexuality who are in their 50s, unless it’s this tragic thing.
Greta: You definitely don’t see that in this country.
Annette: And I was so happy to finally see a complex 16-year-old girl who is not just obsessed with boys or looks. I flashed back on my own experiences in ninth grade.
GLAMOUR: Greta, your character is nearly 30. Your role-playing sex scene with the ultimate handyman—William, played by Billy Crudup—felt so vulnerable and feminine and not raunchy at all.
Annette: When I first read [the script], William was like my 19-year-old boyfriend who was a surfer and worked on a boat—
Greta: I think it’s a California thing. There’s still that guy who’s like, “I built this canoe,” and you’re like, “Maybe we should make out!”
GLAMOUR: If you could do it all over again, what advice would you give your younger self?
Elle: Don’t be so dramatic. Nothing is set in stone.
Greta: Kiss all the people you want to kiss; never feel bad about it.
Annette: Even if you have to hurt people, follow your heart.
20th Century Women is in theaters now.