I know too many extraordinary people. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

Sometimes I think about switching genres — hanging up the film-critic hat, putting the fantasy novels away — and just writing to the world about as many of them as possible. My family and their unlikely histories. My schoolteachers, the sacrifices they’ve made, their generosity. The mentors and guides. The artists who have illuminated my world. I’ve had that daydream a lot lately. Maybe it’s the pandemic — maybe it’s that reminder of how suddenly one or more of these magnificent characters might leave the stage. I’d like to say “I love you” in art.

I guess I’d like to be more like filmmaker Mike Mills.

Mike Mills’s 2010 film Beginners was a large-hearted and intimate tribute to his father.

Mills’s movie Beginners (2010) gave Christopher Plummer one of his greatest roles: Plummer played a character loosely based on Mills’ own father. Ewan McGregor was the filmmaker’s modest self-portrait — a young man coming to understand that his father was more mysterious and complicated than he’d ever guessed. The movie glowed with respect, gratitude, and love. I was moved. (Who would I cast as my father? Not Christopher Plummer, clearly. Let’s check on Christian Bale in 25 years, or Steve Coogan in 10.)

I was also impressed by the big creative risks that Mills took in order to say things that a typical, straightforward drama couldn’t capture. The movie even found room for a talking dog — and it worked. A whimsical gambler, this Mills fellow. (Could I get away with a talking rabbit?)

When I spoke with Mills and McGregor in 2010 during the Seattle stop of their promotion tour, he talked about how he coached his cast to give such delicate, complex, and sincere performances: “I remember saying, ‘Help me not make this a narcissistic, self-pitying, sentimental memoir.’ I love films that are naturalistic and organic, when you feel the truth of life is in there somewhere.”

I should have made time in 2016 for Mike Mills’s next feature — 20th Century Women. I’ve seen it now, and it is every bit as impressive in the complexity of its characters, the clear affection Mills feels for them, and the stylistic adventurousness that keeps audiences guessing. Like Beginners, it’s semi-autobiographical — but this time, it’s a tapestry of tributes to women who raised him, inspired him, and taught him how to be a man. In those roles, he has cast Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning.

Mills’s 2016 film is similarly large-hearted and personal. It’s also full of strong performances including (l-r) Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning.

What’s more — and many critics have written about this in detail, and with greater historical insight that I can — it’s a rich and complicated portrait of a transitional period in American history, with the ideals, values, and contradictions of several generations embodied by these women. We get lessons in history, psychotherapy, sex, and more from multiple threads of narration, different voices, different generations.

This time, the somewhat-self-portrait is of a younger Mills — this time, the young man is named Jamie, and played by Lucas Jade Zumann. It would have been easy for this 15-year-old growing up with his mother and her boarders in a Santa Barbara home to have become merely an avatar for the audience — wide-eyed, mystified, and sometimes bewildered by the dramas surrounding him. But Jamie is interesting enough in his own right. His story is about more than just witnessing these strong, challenging women — it’s about how by listening to women he might synthesize their wisdom and grow to be something better than the men they’ve known.

And, lest this testimony seem disingenuous, Mills is careful to avoid claims of authority or expertise: His women remain delightfully mysterious and unpredictable — that is to say, they’re alive enough to keep audiences guessing. As I eased into its meandering weave of storylines, I became increasingly delighted: This wasn’t ever going to turn into a Movie Movie. Nothing would become more important than Jamie’s exploration of relationships and identity; no threat would emerge to the film’s free spirit, no crisis would draw us into any familiar arc, serving up Oscar moments for famous actors.

Lucas Jade Zumann plays Jamie, a boy learning to be a man in the company of three generations of women.

And then, suddenly, I recognized it. It was familiar. Without any insider knowledge, I came to suspect — or at least imagine — how the inspiration for this film might have occurred. Consider this possible origin story:

A filmmaker who has always wanted to make a film that celebrates the beautiful, complex, and influential women in his life, young and old, sees Cameron Crowe’s year-2000 masterpiece Almost Famous for the first time.

The filmmaker marvels at the relationship between the young and fatherless William Miller (Patrick Fugit) and his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), who wants him to be safe and good and responsible and drug-free, and who has feelings about the trouble with popular music.

The filmmaker marvels at young William’s relationship with his gorgeous music-loving sister (Zooey Deschanel), who gives him her record collection and promises him that someday he’ll be cool. And he is enchanted with the scenes of young William being embraced by, celebrated by, and sexually educated by a bunch of rock-star-obsessed girls who play with him like their new toy. And one of them — Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) — will grow William’s heart several sizes larger and then break it.

The filmmaker isn’t as interested in the stuff about the rock band young William is following, but something about Billy Crudup as an irresponsible rock god makes an impression. This character will get a good lecture from William’s mother, who is never played as prudish or tyrannical, but is revealed for her wisdom in the end.

And so, with these Almost Famous impressions vividly in mind, this filmmaker goes and writes his own movie.

Bening — at her best.

It’s about Jamie who is fatherless and raised by a complicated mother (Bening’s Dorothea), a woman who has strong feelings about the direction of American culture, particularly when it comes to popular music. Like William, Jamie is influenced by a young and gorgeous rock-music enthusiast (Greta Gerwig) who becomes a big sister to him and helps him learn to be cool. Jamie’s also obsessed with his dreamgirl Julie (Elle Fanning) who chases “inappropriate” men but drives him insane by sleeping beside him and insisting he lock up his raging teen hormones. Every day, little by little, Julie breaks his heart anew.

Oh, and then — perhaps the clearest tribute to his inspiration — the filmmaker casts Billy Crudup as William, an irresponsible handyman who needs a good lecture from Jamie’s mother. And even then, where most filmmakers would punish their elders with condescending characterization, Dorothea gets to score solid wisdom points over the handyman’s irresponsibility.

Billy Crudup — once again a free-living lost boy in need of a mother’s guidance.

Perhaps I sound like I’m planning to dismiss 20th Century Women as derivative. But no — Mike Mills takes those remarkable strengths from Almost Famous — or, at the very least, he strikes remarkably similar notes — and composes from them something new and personal. Meandering observantly and patiently in his storytelling, gambling with a variety of styles, he gives a remarkable cast a lot of room to develop their characters.

I’ve never seen a stronger performance from Bening — and that’s saying something, as she’s been impressing me since I first saw The Grifters in 1990. She’s probably best-known for her turn in American Beauty, but here she’s portrayed with all of the compassion that that sneering and cynical movie lacked.

Jamie (Dorothea) turns the tables on the photographer Abbie (Gerwig).

Gerwig is Gerwig, and that’s a very good thing here — her Abbie, suffering from cervical cancer, is half in ruins, almost tragic, and utterly fascinating without ever stealing a scene (which Gerwig can easily do without trying).

As played by Fanning, Julie is a different kind of wise, a different kind of tragic — the sort of girl gives Jamie whispered lessons about sex through her cigarette smoke while never letting him kiss her. She’s learned about life from the men of all ages want to use and abuse her beauty, and she’ll easily surrender to mistreatment in hopes that sometimes she’ll get a taste of the real love she lacks.

Julie (Fanning) teaches Jamie (Zumann) and torments him in equal measure.

And in the middle of these three icons of evolving feminism, Lucas Jade Zumann makes Jamie a remarkable mix of curiosity, confusion, frustration, and desire.

What a pleasure to see a film that isn’t in any hurry; it just loves its messy and magnificent characters — all of them — and because of that, I do too.

In that sense, I can’t help but wonder if Gerwig brought any of her experience on this film to her own Lady Bird. I sense some of this movie in that one, just as I hear echoes of Almost Famous all the way through this: great art inspiring great art, the greatness in all three being defined by their loving hearts and their courageous imaginations.