It proves well worth the wait with a powerful performance from Bening and a film that is perfectly paced, full of humour and pathos.
The year is 1979 and in sun-drenched California 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is starting to grow up, starting to question things, starting to take an interest in girls and starting to want to experience life outside of school and his Mum’s influence.
His mother Dorothea (Bening), who runs a boarding house, notices he is shutting down communication with her and enlists the help of two other women to observe him and if needed impart some wisdom. They are 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) who is a good friend of Jamie’s and photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) who is a tenant at the house and fighting cervical cancer.
On paper this decision may seem to have pitfalls, and the screenplay by Mike Mills acknowledges this, but once we’ve been around this household a bit we can also see the benefits. After all it’s been noted Billy Crudup’s William, a carpenter who lives in Dorothea’s boarding house as well, yammering on about wood is hardly helping.
While the characters sometimes struggle to communicate with themselves, they confide directly to the audience via voice-over narration in well placed montage scenes. The structure of the narrative is perfect; when Mills chooses to reveal something about each character it proves greatly affecting.
The writer knows some simple truths about human nature and how our fate is often defined by our character as Heraclitus once said. The fact that writer and director Mills is telling a partly autobiographical story based on people he actually knew only make this more poignant.
In a cast that proves endearing throughout, Annette Bening still manages to stand out in one of the best performances of her career as Dorothea. Jaime doesn’t want to rebel as much as be honest about the hypocrisy of adults. The teen loves his mother, but wants to be on equal terms with her but knows you can’t be your child’s friend.
At one point he tells her what he thinks and she doesn’t raise her voice but remains calm telling him: “You can’t talk that way to me.” Defeated he leaves the room but the camera stays to show her sit down on the bed and cry because her son has talked back to her. This is a parent’s plight and perhaps even more so a mother's.
There are a lot of scenes like that where Bening is the rock keeping calm and winning the day, but communicating doubts and embarrassment. On some level she’s maternal to all the main characters and no matter how smart they think they are she always manages to display the most wisdom often slaying with a killer line. Just like a mother.
This makes the film sound serious and dramatic when actually it is full of laughs throughout. A case in point is when two older characters try to “get” punk music.
Sometimes the media may lament there are few, good roles for women. Maybe we’re just not seeing them; there are three good ones in ‘20th Century Women’ and a reminder that Annette Bening is one of the best actresses working today. We can’t afford to take for granted what she has done for us so far nor fail to show that we are grateful to still have her around.
'20th Century Women' is screening nationally now.