Much has already been written about Annette Bening's Golden Globe-nominated performance in "20th Century Women" - so much so that audiences coming to the film armed with this background might initially wonder what all the fuss is about. But this essay on 1970s feminism and the changing role of women in American society is absolutely anchored by Ms. Bening's turn as headstrong divorcee Dorothea Fields, who's raising a teenaged son while simultaneously mothering a tribe of friends and characters who enter and exit her bustling, bohemian household.
Dorothea initially seems to be a collection of character traits: she's quirky, opinionated, inquisitive, and fiercely protective of her son. By the end of the film Ms. Bening has melded this mosaic into an unforgettable portrait which seems to transcend the boundaries of the film.
Writer Mike Mills crafted "'20th Century Women" as an homage to his mother, so anecdotal moments - such as the intro when Dorothea reacts to the family car catching fire by inviting the responding fire crew to her birthday party that night - feel sweetly honest as well as providing an astute look into this woman, whose instinct is to open her arms and her home and find a place for everyone. But she's more than just a homebody; she's also pioneered a place as the only female engineer in an all-male workplace, and she schools her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) on the management of a stock portfolio.
In addition to Dorothea, Jamie is deeply influenced by two other women in his life: punky photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig, "Frances Ha"), who rents a room in their house, and his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning, "Maleficent"), with whom he is not-at-all-secretly in love. For a male role model Jamie could turn to their other boarder, William (Billy Crudup, "Spotlight"), who's helping to fix up the house as part of his rent. But when Dorothea senses that her influence as a parent won't be enough to help Jamie mature and become a well-rounded person it is not to William but to Julie and Abbie that she appeals.
As her son forges bonds with these two other women, exploring the raucous world of punk music and absorbing earnest lessons in contemporary feminism, Dorothea remarks to Abbie, "I'm jealous that you get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will." It's a wistful but clear-eyed observation regarding the joys and limitations of parenting, and a deeply emotional moment that's underplayed in a way that perfectly represents the overall strength of Ms. Bening's remarkable rendering here.
Ms. Bening is ably supported by strong acting all around - so much so that "20th Century Women" feels like a bit of a master-class. Ms. Gerwig comes of age beautifully with her portrayal of the fiery young artist who's navigating a set of personal challenges but still signs on to usher Jamie defiantly along in his first steps of teenage rebellion. Mr. Crudup continues to display the versatility and generosity that's allowed him to shine previously in such disparate fare as "Watchmen" and "Waking the Dead". And Ms. Fanning adds "20th Century Women" to a growing list of sophisticated and sure-footed performances that mark her as one of the most interesting actresses of her generation.
Mr. Mills has the benefit of directing his own material with "20th Century Women", but that doesn't take anything away from his accomplishment here. Although the story proceeds in an occasionally disconnected fashion he keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, and in the end this kaleidoscopic approach is one of the film's strengths. Characters occasionally speak directly to the viewer to reveal elements of their past and hints about their future, and this unmooring from linear time is emotionally potent in a way that is quite unexpected. Taken together, the standard story flow and the unexpected cutaways combine to create a remarkably vivid picture of these characters, in this place, at this time, as well as giving them a rich context that weighs the value of a human lifespan and underscores the importance of living in the moment.
Some viewers may find "20th Century Women" occasionally meandering and a bit too unstructured. But those who stick with it will see the payoff in the days and weeks thereafter, as this is a film that remains on the mind. It's an opportunity to enjoy a snapshot of a very specific time in American culture, to ponder the connections and differences between genders and generations, and to consider how we find our way to the people who become our family, for a lifetime or just for a short time.