20th Century Women
Starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
In her latest effort to finally win that coveted Oscar, Annette Bening, four-time Academy Award nominee, gives both a familiar performance, but one of her most subdued. From the life and experience of writer/director Mike Mills, 20th Century Women explores eccentricities within family as he did with his Oscar winning film Beginners (2010). This script isn’t as engaging, it’s not as funny or enjoyable, but the quirky performances keep it moving, despite it’s rather meandering pace. Mills uses unorthodox visual elements, characters talking 3rd person about their future deaths, sped up scenes for driving and dancing, just to name a few. It starts to feel like a melting pot of ideas that distract from the narrative.
It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara, Dorothea (Bnning) is a single mother with a teenage son, and hasn’t a clue how to reach him beyond basic mothering skills. Surrounded by women, 15-year-old Jamie (Zunmann) wants to talk to his mother, ask her questions, but she pushes him away, shuts down what she feels are intrusive questions about her failures and loneliness. He turns his attention to 17-year-old Julie (Fanning), the experienced older girl who sneaks into his room at night to talk, but nothing more. Dorothea doesn’t understand the modern world of punk music, rampant feminism and why she can’t find an agreeable man. Jamie excuses his mother’s behavior based on her having lived through the depression. “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world,” she tells him.
It’s a performance piece for Bening, Gerwig and Fanning, but as a whole, it’s often as laborious as the work Crudup is doing on the house.
Dorothea is based on ideas of Mills own mother, but there are hues and notes from Bening’s previously nominated motherly incarnations. The performance happens more in between the scenes of dialogue or confrontation, she disperses a sadness and unrest that infects all the characters. The world around her is certainly a mess, with two unusual people living in the house she is restoring. One of those might get her first Oscar nomination as supporting actress. Indie queen Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Jackie) delivers one of her most coalesced performances to date. The film is never more alive than a dinner scene where Gerwig’s character forces everyone to say “menstruation” while Dorothea simultaneously is fed up with feminism and this new era of openness. It’s the film’s centerpiece.
It’s a performance piece for Bening, Gerwig and Fanning, but as a whole, it’s often as laborious as the work Crudup is doing on the house. The scenes between mother and son are the guts of the movie, Mills conflicted love letter to his mother. It’s emblematic in the distance between every mother and son, Mills script uses the death of experimentation in the late 70’s to epitomize what’s also happening to this ragtag family Dorothea has assembled. The third act is the strongest, when the characters finally starting saying what they feel and pushing other characters to respond. I don’t think it matches Bening’s overlooked performance in Mother & Daughter, that still stands on a high pedestal looking at her cumulative work. However, it’s the type of fully realized female character voters might respond well with, but it’s yet another motherly figure that won’t get her to the podium.
Performances that only barely make an impact, in a film that will be forgotten among more exciting awards possibilities.