Annette Bening appears so infrequently on screen that it always feels like a cinematic occasion when she does. In her most recent films, Bening has often given a towering performance that’s far better than the actual movie. With 20th Century Women she has a film that’s every bit as good as she is and also doesn’t task her with carrying all that goodness. Writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners) gifts many interesting cinematic asides and Bening is flanked by Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning and Billy Crudup in detailed and appealing roles and the result is a collage coming-of-age film with a very adult awareness of the mother figure from an older perspective.
20th Century Women has a simple story that’s done rather profoundly. Essentially, it’s a single mother, Dorothea (Bening), in 1979 Santa Barbara, who asks two young women (Gerwig and Fanning) to help her raise her teen boy (Lucas Jade Zuman) as a good man. Dorothea was a child of the Great Depression when people received more help from their neighbors, but she’s also a modern women who works in advertising, can fly a plane, is equal landlord and friend to non-familial tenants and is assumed to be a lesbian by her co-worker—due to her singledom.
The central conceit is that a man becomes good through the interesting influences in his environment and it doesn’t matter if it comes from another man. As such, 20th Century Women is a film of many cultural touchstones: punk music, Jimmy Carter speeches, Our Bodies, Our Selves, etc. I recently got the chance to speak with Bening (who gives a measured and composed turn as Dorothea) about her own personal cultural touchstones growing up in Southern California at the same time that the film is set. We also discussed laughing exercises and the very specific story of motherhood that Mills created.