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Movie review: ‘20th Century Women’ a touching mother and son tale

Annette Bening, left, and Lucas Zade Zumann in "20th Century Women." (Merrick Morton / AP)
Annette Bening, left, and Lucas Zade Zumann in "20th Century Women." (Merrick Morton / AP)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Writer/director Mike Mills’ last film, 2010’s “Beginners,” was a touching tribute to his father, and he’s now given his mother the same treatment with “20th Century Women.” It’s ostensibly about his adolescence in 1979 Santa Barbara, but that’s just the premise – it’s so much more than that, a magnifying glass that blows up a tiny microcosm containing a profound portrait of the evolution of women throughout the 20th century.

Annette Bening is Dorothea, a single mother in her 50s to teenaged Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and a surrogate mother to a band of wayward souls: boarder Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a flame-haired punk and photographer, hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup), and Jamie’s bad girl best friend Julie (Elle Fanning). Dorothea rules with an arched eyebrow and the wave of a lit cigarette, and Bening spends much of the film reacting to everyone around her, equally bossy and nosy and hilarious in her maternal ways.

The gentle thrust of the plot involves Dorothea enlisting Abbie and Julie to help raise Jamie, and soon they’ve got a budding male feminist on their hands, to the chagrin of traditional but trying to be open-minded Dorothea. Mother and son are attempting to understand each other, and they’re both off the mark by just a hair. But a sense of curiosity and deep respect is evident: Zumann imbues Jamie with a preternatural sense of empathy, but Mills keeps Dorothea and the other women just mysterious and opaque enough for the young man.

There’s a dreamy feel to the film, starting with the aerial shots of coastal California, buoyed weightlessly by an airy score by Roger Neill. It feels like floating on a surface, observing this beautifully rendered world. It’s a place you want to dive into and stay awhile. But Mills infuses just the right amount of stylistic surrealism, LSD in the punch, so that the film isn’t just a period auto-biopic. Acid-trip streams of color bleed from a vintage Mercedes speeding to LA for a punk show, looking like a sun-blasted photographic print. He and editor Leslie Jones play with speed, zipping the characters through space, and craft sequences culled from archival footage of the Greatest Generation or the underground punk scene to give cultural context.

Bening is fantastic, but this is an ensemble piece – it wouldn’t work without the colorful, sensitive, unpredictable characters for her to bounce off of, react to and interact with. They all come from a different time, and there’s a deep vein of rich interaction to be mined from their generational gaps. Gerwig shines as the artist straining against her small town’s borders, and Fanning is cool as a cucumber as the adventurous, but needy Julie. Crudup is at his best and funniest, too.

1979 offers a sense living on the cusp, a transitional moment from the Carter years of the ’70s to the Reagan era of excess in the ’80s. That sense of transition exists within the lives of every character – from teenage Jamie, to the other characters seemingly waiting for their lives to start. Mills has zeroed in on this moment when these disparate people were a nontraditional family, rambling about a big old house, living and learning with and from each other. The humanity and humor that permeates “20th Century Women” is bracing, invigorating gulp of cinematic oxygen.

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