Annette Bening is simply glorious as one of the title characters in 20th Century Women. (Note to the Academy, make sure that Best Actress nomination happens.) She plays Dorothea Fields, a divorced mother facing enormous changes, social and personal, at the last summer of the 1970s. Specifically, she has a 15-year-old son to raise – that would be Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), with whom she shares a Santa Barbara boarding house that requires repair and renovation. She doesn’t know how to guide Jamie through puberty. So she asks for help. One boarder – Abbie, gorgeously well played by Greta Gerwig – is a twentysomething photographer into punk and red hair dye; she steps right up. And so does Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17-year-old neighbor who – unknown to Dorothea – sneaks into Jamie’s bed at night not for sex but intimate talks. There is also a dude around: He’s William (Billy Crudup), a hippiesh carpenter and handyman still in need of finding his own way. But it’s mostly these 20th-Century women who give Jamie his bearings.
And do they ever. That’s what stands for plot in the script that director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) has generously carved from his own life. You might remember 2011’s Beginners, in which Mills 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 equation. Despite its grandiose title, 20th Century Women unfolds as series of small moments – some hilarious and heartfelt, other silly and sorrowful – that help define the characters and their time. She lets us see a woman who can be prickly, touchy and recklessly hospitable. When her Ford Galaxy bursts into flames in a store parking lot, Dorothea invites the firemen who put out the blaze home for dinner. This is one complicated woman, and the actor plays her with riveting complexity and compassion.
Rarely has a film so ingeniously blended cultural artifacts into its storytelling DNA. 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, a theory that baffles and annoys one of his male peers to the point of violent outburst. 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. A music traditionalist, Dorothea prefers soothing standards like “As Time Goes By” to the dissonant rage of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” which she and William sneak a listen to. Watch Bening’s face as the the vinyl spins – it’s a study in curiosity and confusion. As everyone gathers by the TV to hear Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which the President bemoans the growth of “Me Decade” avarice, reactions are strong and varied.
Mills handles these tumultuous shifts with artful restraint, sometimes shifting from present to past and future in ways that might seem jolting in less sensitive hands. And then there’s Bening, riding the waves of Dorothea’s life in a magnificent performance without a false note or an actress-y bid for sympathy. When Jamie and Julie borrow Dorothea’s car for a weekend away, Mom heads after them with Abbie and William in tow. You expect fireworks, not the lively exchange that ensues, followed by snacking and dancing. That’s life. And that’s what 20th Century Women has in abundance. Treasure it.