20th Century Women (15)
DIRECTED BY: Mike Mills
STARRING: Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
Review by Tim Robey - The Telegraph
There are things in life that passeth all understanding: bubble tea, aviation, and how Annette Bening failed to get an Oscar nomination for her career-best work in 20th Century Women.
Bening neither hogs the film nor ever seems like the sole point of it, which is maybe how a performance this nuanced and glorious slips through the cracks. There are louder films jostling for attention out there. This one is the secret treasure of the season, though – crafted with tender precision, and built to last.
Writer-director Mike Mills brings us five characters, in Santa Barbara, in 1979, and illuminates five whole American lives – from cradle right through to grave, in one case – that chime and clash with their moment. It’s about social and generational shifts – the last days of punk; the brink of Reagan; what feminism meant in this place and time. And it’s about a mother and son raising each other, with a little help from the other flawed souls they rely on.
Bening is Dorothea, a 55-year-old divorcée who talked herself once into romantic attachment, and has never been hugely tempted to try again. She has Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a slight, chronically sullen 15-year-old trying to figure out what’ll make him happy, and why his mother is still alone, and whether it gets her down.
Dorothea is based on Mills’s own mother, just as Christopher Plummer’s character in his last film, the similarly sweet-souled Beginners (2010), was a portrait of his dad. She could have been eternally wise, large of heart, unsinkable and insufferable. Instead – and this is all Bening’s doing – she’s a perfectly braided mixture of conviction and confusion, clinging to her certainties like life-rafts in a changing world.
Colleagues speculate that she might be a lesbian (she isn’t), and when one awkwardly asks her out, she dilutes the gesture with a group dinner at home. She and her son are self-sufficient, in their way, but she’s also a child of the Depression, and knows the importance of community through good times and bad.
They share their grand, rickety old house with two tenants – an affable handyman called William (Billy Crudup), who beds women easily but never quite knows what to do with them afterwards, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a New York-taught art student, with a Bowie-inspired shock of red hair, who is recovering from cervical cancer. This mid-20th-century woman is introduced at her most twitchily vulnerable; one of the film’s long-range, lightly managed projects, which falls to the tremendous Gerwig, is watching her find her groove again.
Dorothea sees lessons everywhere. Abbie offers some. So, near-unwittingly, does Julie (Elle Fanning), who is two years older than Jamie, at an age when two years make all the difference. This childhood friend likes to snuggle in his bed and chat, but he clearly, painfully, wants more, and suffers from the taunting knowledge of everything she’s doing with other guys.
Mills started out directing music videos for the likes of Air and Blonde Redhead, but his sensibility is much more humane and lived-in than cute or flashy. He toys with psychedelic swooshes of colour separation – when Jamie plays truant on a car trip to LA – and uses nuggets of archive footage to show us where this quintet sprang from.
As ever with Mills, though, it’s all in the everyday details: watching his films is like gleaning personality clues at a car boot sale. Ever since Thumbsucker (2005), he’s been an underrated wizard with actors, too: take Crudup, whose mellow, straggle-haired stoicism in this role might be the best thing he’s ever done, or Fanning, as a girl pretending to be vastly worldlier than she is.
Even so, when Abbie forces everyone at dinner to recite the word “menstruation” without blushing, the first reaction you’ll crave is always going to emanate from Bening’s face – such a faithful source of comedy, experience, and weary recoil. 20th Century Women is a tribute not only to Mills’s ma, but to a great actress at the peak of her powers. The film itself is the gold statuette.
THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER 2017
Doors: 7.30pm Film 8pm
The Guardian - ★★★★
The Telegraph - ★★★★★
The Independent - ★★★
The Times - ★★★★