In Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women Annette Bening gives what may be the crowning performance of her career as Dorothea Fields, a free-spirited but principled single mom raising her teenage son in 1970s Santa Barbara (Jimmy Carter on the TV, The Talking Heads on the stereo, clouds of cigarette smoke in the air). Although it’s fleshed out by a wide range of supporting players, many of them warmly and humorously rendered, the film really exists as a frame for Dorothea as a character (she’s based on Mills’ own mother) and for Bening’s sensitive interpretation of her. I look forward to what I hope will be a rich and fruitful late phase of Bening’s career as she heads into her sixties, but for now this is probably the finest thing she’s ever done, better than her work in The Grifters or American Beauty or The Kids Are All Right. In a film that, like Mills’ previous effort Beginners, sometimes resorts to hand-waving in an attempt to hide its own basic insubstantiality, she cuts a striking figure.
20th Century Women isn’t decorated with quite so many twee flourishes as Beginners was, though Mills still shows a weakness for “contextualizing,” often lazily, via stock footage and voice-over narration. Here he frequently resorts to archival images, quotations, and onscreen text in order to memorialize the particular moment when radical politics and punk rock, represented by the budding photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who rents a bedroom in Dorothea’s house, began to bump up against older, more genteel forms of feminist expression represented by Dorothea. Dorothea’s feminism is in the tradition of Katharine Hepburn and Amelia Earhart—egalitarian, spunky, upbeat, conventionally liberal; Abbie’s is edgier and angrier, shaped by Marxism, Susan Sontag, and Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Dorothea’s teenage son Jamie often finds himself caught in the crossfire of the two women’s conflicting sensibilities. While she encourages Jamie to challenge authority and gives him permission to skip school, Dorothea is less comfortable when the conversation shifts to sex and bodies: she panics when Abbie tries to give Jamie a well-intentioned lesson in the female reproductive system. (“How many men do you know who give a shit about female orgasms?”, Abbie counters.) Meanwhile, Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning) experiments with her own forms of expression under the influence of pop psychology and Judy Blume’s Forever. Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie are meant to represent women’s attitudes toward sex, independence, music, art as they range across generations—though, as earnest as Mills’ intentions may be, the film’s insights into female experience come off feeling pretty surfacey.
Nevertheless the film has a breezy charm that befits its setting, and all three female leads are superb. Abbie is a variation on the type of nervous/excitable spaz that Gerwig has come to perfect over the last several years; she puts her neurotic comic timing to good, if familiar, use here. As Julie, an adolescent girl flirting ever so innocently with rebellion, Fanning shows that she has retained the openness and naturalism that she showed in early films like Somewhere. Riding around the tree-lined streets of Santa Barbara on her bike, her white-blonde hair streaming out behind her, a cigarette dangling from her lip, she looks like a fairy child crossed with Jean-Paul Belmondo. But the film really belongs to Bening, whose best moments here don’t involve any dialogue at all (such as her reaction, or series of reactions, to her son’s explanation that he got into a schoolyard fight about “clitoral stimulation”). It’s a performance that’s utterly relaxed—something akin to Ellen Burstyn's in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore—and Mills, to his credit, doesn't try to hurry it along. The role lets Bening breathe, sink into it, inhabit it. She delivers a star turn in a film that, its flaws notwithstanding, gives us the pleasure of watching three terrific women at work.