At the Q&A after the press screening of the New York Film Festival Centerpiece film “20th Century Women,” writer/director Mike Mills gave a homework assignment to the audience. “Make a movie about your mother,” he said, “and have a brilliant actress play her.” Immediately, I thought that, while Taraji P. Henson would slay in the role, nobody could play my mother better than my beloved Mommy herself. The resulting movie would be rated NC-17 for language, and I’d cast Cuba Gooding Jr. as me so he can deal with the ass whipping Mom’s been promising me for 30 years.
While we wait for my comic, cinematic masterpiece, you can watch Annette Bening bring Mills’ Mom to colorful, complicated life in the follow-up to the director’s Oscar-winning 2010 film, "Beginners." As Dorothea, Bening gets most of the screenplay’s juicy, audience-pleasing zingers, yet her role is more than just one-liners. Her excellent performance evokes one of the greatest cinematic mothers ever to grace a screen: With her chain-smoking (“she smoked Salems because they were healthier,” the narration tells us), her unusual plans of action, the boarders she takes in for income, the time frame of the film and her wicked delivery of barbs, Bening invites favorable comparison to Joanne Woodward’s committed, insane performance in “The Effect of Gamma Rays On Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” Bening’s character is a lot nicer, but she’s equally unforgettable.
Additionally, Bening really lets you feel a mother’s expected sense of loss once her children have begun forging their own paths. There’s something about her maternal roles (like “The Kids Are Alright”) that bring out such fascinating textures in Bening’s acting. The way she looks at her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), when he asks her an annoying question is so subtle, yet so genuine that it triggers memories of one’s own mother’s face responding to the same situation. Her worries and fears about the growing distance between she and Jamie is recognizable both to mothers and sons. And though Dorothea’s proposed remedy for helping Jamie navigate his burgeoning independence seems strange, off-kilter and more than a tad unbelievable, Bening’s commitment to the idea makes it work better than it should.
The other actresses who comprise the 20th century women are equally good, especially Greta Gerwig as Abbie, a twentysomething punk-rocking cancer survivor with dyed hair and a penchant for absorbing the numerous books on feminism that were popular at the time. Mills quotes from them, not just for Gerwig’s character but for Elle Fanning’s as well. Fanning plays Julie, with whom Jamie is smitten, but who has permanently banished him to the Friend Zone. These two are commissioned by Dorothea to advise Jamie on the way of the world. The women here are treated with more empathy than one might expect in a film written and directed by a man.
“Shouldn’t a man teach him how to be a man?” asks Julie. Dorothea tried that, with fellow boarder Billy Crudup, but Jamie found him too boring to be effective. “He listens to you,” she tells Abbie. “And he likes you,” she tells Julie. “I’m not his mother,” Julie responds, but she just might be the epitome of Dorothea’s life lessons for Jamie: “Sometimes having your heart broken is a great way to learn about the world,” says the wise mother.
Mills uses the location and the 1979 time frame of “20th Century Women” to great effect. Set in Santa Barbara, the film has a leisurely California vibe that Mills occasionally tweaks with psychedelic colors and fast motion. 1979 was the year before the rampant materialism of the 1980s saturated the American fabric, a notion foreshadowed by a hilarious throwback to then-President Carter’s infamous “Crisis of Confidence” presidential lecture. “That was beautiful,” says the out-of-touch Dorothea after Carter speaks. “He is so screwed,” a younger person accurately predicts.
While 1979’s punk music on the soundtrack represents the film’s younger people, Mills uses older music and movies like “Casablanca” as signifiers for Dorothea’s generation, which lived through the Depression and WWII and is now scratching its head at what the hell the next generation is into. There’s a great scene where the fortysomething Crudup (who is absolutely charming here) and Bening attempt to listen to songs by Black Flag and their hated rivals The Talking Heads. After the duo attempt to dance to the former, they discover that there’s something about David Byrne’s group that they could enjoy. The younger characters mercifully never learn that these “decrepit old people” liked something they deemed cool. That would be a fate worse than death.
“20th Century Women” has a tendency to be a tad too quirky, with its multiple narrators, extraneous flash-forwards and other assorted dramatic trickery, but any problems are quickly forgotten by the excellent performances and the little touches Mills throws in that draw no attention to themselves but are profoundly effective. For example, a scene where Jamie does something dangerous and winds up at the hospital gets a shocking amount of emotional mileage out of a split second shot of Dorothea carrying her unconscious son’s body into the emergency room. On the surface, you wouldn’t think Bening would be strong enough to carry the teenage Zumann, but then you consider that a mother’s concern for her children will make her stronger than the Incredible Hulk. “20th Century Women” gets that little detail right, and many others as well.