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20th Century Women
Annette Bening is simply glorious as one of the “20th Century women.” If justice prevails she will easily be one of the year’s Best Actress nominees. She plays 55-year old Dorothea Fields, a divorced mother facing enormous changes, social and personal, during the summer of 1979. Specifically, she has a 15-year-old son to raise.
His name is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) with whom she shares a crumbling Santa Barbara Victorian boarding house. She doesn't know how to guide Jamie through puberty and he is turning into a creature who is increasingly alien to her. So she enlists life-coaching help from two women. One is tenant Abbie - wonderfully played by Greta Gerwig – a photographer in her mid-twenties. She steps right up as does Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17-year-old neighbor who – initially unknown to Dorothea – sneaks into Jamie's bed at night not for sex but intimate talks. There is also a male lodger around. He’s William (Billy Crudup), an appealing but humorless hybrid of hippie and handyman.
But it's mostly the three 20th-Century women who “help” give young Jamie his bearings, sometimes with humor; sometimes with seriousness, Director Mike Mills has loosely based the movie on his own life. In the 2011 Beginners, he told the story of his dad, a husband and father who didn’t come out of the closet until age 75. (Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for the role.) Now Bening takes on the female side of the Mills’ equation.
An uneventful yet irresistibly honest story unfolds in a series of small moments – some light-hearted, others sorrowful – that help define the characters and their time. Dorothea is a woman who can be prickly, touchy and recklessly hospitable. When her Ford Galaxy bursts into flames in a store parking lot, she invites the attending firefighters to dinner at her home. This is one complicated woman and Bening plays her with riveting complexity and compassion. Abbie, a cancer survivor, buries her head in books about women's health such as Our Bodies, Ourselves, a text that also instructs Jamie in the wonders of clitoral stimulation. And it’s telling that Dorothea, though an avid reader of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, feels as lost in the shifting ground of 1979 as her son.
Mike Mills handles these tumultuous shifts with artful restraint, sometimes shifting from present to past and future in ways that at times are a bit jarring. But, through it all, there is Bening, riding the waves of Dorothea's life in a magnificent performance without a false note. It is a portrayal to treasure. It’s also a pleasure to be in the company of the engaging misfits living in Dorothea’s vast, rickety boarding house. Via music, clothing, cars, and politics, Mills creates a strong sense of the late ’70s flashpoints but the most nostalgic element of the movie might stem from the familiarity of his three 20th-century women in all their adaptable, resilient glory. You never catch Bening acting and she anchors this movie. When it is over you realize you miss Dorothea.
Annette Bening has long deserved an Oscar and 20th Century Women may be the film to provide it. Highly recommended.