You know, I loved Mike Mills’ 2005 debut, “Thumbsucker.” It’s a must- rent if you haven’t seen it. Then a couple of years ago he directed Christopher Plummer to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “Beginners.”
Now Mills brings us his original screenplay, directing “20th Century Women” and most definitely bringing Annette Bening to the top 5 performances by women this year. She may finally get her Oscar after waiting and being snubbed in “Being Julia,” “American Beauty,” “The American President,” and “The Grifters.” At least.
Bening plays Dorothea, raised in the Depression and now raising a teenage boy in 1979 Santa Barbara as single mother. Mills has created a unique character for Bening, who plays the part without makeup or even a hair comb. Dorothea is a 55 year old woman (about Bening’s age) wrestling with monumental social changes as her son comes of age. Sensing her deficiencies, she appoints two deputies– Greta Gerwig’s Abbie and Elle Fanning’s Julie– to help her. They are then three women in different orbits, all bringing Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) into some kind of manhood.
“20th Century Women” joins “Manchester by the Sea” as another completely original, outstanding story not adapted from anything. Like Kenny Lonergan, Mills is a real writer, with a terrific ear. He’s empathetic and just melancholy enough to pull off a beautiful ensemble piece that should earn him a Best Picture nomination and many other citations for excellence. The humor is sly and there are plenty of organic laughs. Mills is exploring a lot of things in retrospect here, especially the women’s movement. A lot of things that seemed like New Age in 1979 are taken for granted now.
All the actors, including Billy Crudup as a kind of lost post-hippie who lives in Dorothea’s rambling house, shine. They’re aided by voice over narration detailing backstories of each character as if they were part of a novel. This works wonders because the most layered information about each character, the better.
But in the end, it’s Bening’s movie. Her Dorothea wise, winning and funny. Women should flock to this film, single mothers especially. “20th Century Women” rings true on every level.