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Mike Mills' third feature film doesn't stray too far away from what made his second, 2010's Beginners, so successful. While Beginners focused on Mike Mills' relationship with his father, played by Christopher Plummer, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his inspiring performance, 20th Century Women takes aim at his mother, played by Annette Bening.
In 20th Century Women Bening portrays Dorothea Fields, a single mother in her mid-50s who's trying to raise her adolescent son Jamie (Lucas Jase Zumann) amidst the burgeoning rebellion and anarchy of 1979. Realizing that she's out of her depth, and that Jamie could profit from other point of views, Dorothea summons the help of punk artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who is boarding a room in her home, as well as Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually enlightened and provocative teenager next door, for help.
Like Beginners, 20th Century Women is rich with Mike Mills' personal affectations, so much so that his presence and voice looms large over every scene. It's even a little disconcerting and overwhelming at first, as 20th Century Women struggles to develop an engaging cohesion, and instead seems to blur its hopes, ideas, and insecurities out on screen. In fact, you'll be surprised just how late into the film 20th Century Women actually clicks.
Yet, throughout these teething problems, there's Annette Bening. In a year full of tremendous leading female performance, Annette Bening in 20th Century Women might be my favorite. She's the sun around which 20th Century Women swirls, sometimes to its detriment, because whenever she's off screen, even for just a few moments, minutes, or scenes, you want her back in vision, radiating her ineffable charisma.
It's not that Gerwig, Fanning, and Billy Crudup, who plays the damaged mechanic that also lives in Dorothea's abode, are bad. In fact, it's far from it. They deliver exactly what you expect of them, even stretching their mannerisms and personalities under the guidance of Mike Mills. But they just can't touch Bening, who even threatens Mike Mills' as the dominant presence of 20th Century Women.
As Dorothea Fields, Annette Bening is an indefinable rotundness of complexities. Clearly troubled by the evolution of her teenage son, Dorothea is sage enough to know she can't do it alone, yet stubborn in the approach that's needed from her cohorts. 20th Century Women could easily just come off as a parenting experiment gone array, but Bening's clear concern and desire to learn of this new generation and its surroundings adds a weight and integrity to her subversive parenting ploy. Even if she never comes to understand them. Plus, she looks cool as funk smoking a cigarette, something that becomes absorbed into her performance as she specifically times her inhales and exhales with a look, glare, or smile that you're on tenterhooks to read and then immediately illuminates.
Like Christopher Plummer and Mike Mills in Beginners, Annette Bening and Mikes Mills in 20th Century Women form a potent collaboration, too. After its initial wobbles, 20th Century Women's sporadic omnipresent arcs of where its character arrived from, where they currently are in the story, and where they'll end up bring a richness and realisation to proceedings. It's a risky manoeuvre from Mike Mills, as it could immediately ground the film to a halt and take you out of it altogether, yet it adds to the overall feeling of inevitability that impregnates the piece.
There's an assuredness and confidence to Mike Mills technical approach that juxtaposes sweetly with the eccentricities and nervousness of the script, too, providing 20th Century Women with an edge of unpredictability that it never fully takes advantage of. Instead, it's more unusual that surprising, especially since, with 20th Century Women, Mike Mills expectedly plays with enlightening anecdotes, probing discussions, and unanswerable questions rather than a beating plot. On first viewing the heavy dialogue can be overwhelming. Yet it will undoubtedly become richer and more resonant with each addition watch.
Come awards season expect both Mike Mills and Annette Bening to be rewarded with nominations in plenty of Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress categories, respectively. Especially since Annette Bening has never looked cooler or more in her element, as she gives a career best performance in 20th Century Women, which is as rich as it is understated. But Mills preference as a director for being patiently and calmly understated over showmanship and exuberance, which admittedly at times because its so minilmalized verges on style over substance, means he's unlikely to get his due in that regard just yet.
In fact, with 20th Century Women, Mike Mills suggests that he's destined to be a filmmaker's filmmaker. One that flourishes in the in-betweens of stories and character, where he's able to muse on his deeply personal past, as well as his current thoughts and feelings. Mills isn't just aware that's it's an approach that's not for everyone, but he seemingly revels in this intimacy, and 20th Century Women is further proof that there's no other American filmmaker that's as open, honest or enlightening. It just takes a while to fully get the gist.