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20th Century Women

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There’s so much to love in Mike Mills “20th Century Women”, that I bristled whenever it bordered on becoming just a little bit twee (inviting the firemen over for dinner was the first sign). I had an issue with this last time around for the writer/director, with 2011’s “Beginners”. Quirky hangs over these motion pictures like a guillotine occasionally. And now that I recall that Mr. Mills is married to the undefinable Miranda July, it kind of all makes sense. No matter–the performances save his films. He won an Oscar for Christopher Plummer with “Beginners”. And now he’s assembled a perfect cast for his latest feature–led by an astonishing, powerful, career-best Annette Bening. Best Actress is deep this year, folks. It’ll be criminal if (when?) Emma Stone wins the Oscar.Portman and Adams are so much more deserving–and Bening probably most of all.

It’s a 1979 slice of life in Santa Barbara, California. Jimmy Carter is President, but Ronald Reagan looms on the horizon. The “hippies” are in the midst of their last gasp. Dorothea (the marvelous Ms. Bening) is a single mom raising her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). They live in a huge house, that is constantly in need of repair, and Dorothea rents out rooms to supplement her income from her full-time job. William (excellent Billy Crudup) is a convenient tenant, because he’s an attractive, peacenik, carpenter and handyman. And two young women help raise Jamie, as well as become unattainable romantic desires. Teenage Julie (Elle Fanning–what a year for her) is mostly estranged from her parents, while twentysomething Abbie (Greta Gerwig–WHAT A YEAR FOR HER!) is a photographer that loves the punk scene, and has a fling with William.

Each of Mr. Mills last two films have been called semi-autobiographical. He’ll be 51 this year…the same age as me. So, we were both 13 in 1979…and I remember. Mills nails it. The feel, the look, the hope, and the ennui. Marielle Heller pulled off a similar feat, with last year’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”. I bring up Heller’s movie for a reason–I found it a little bit braver than “20th Century Women”. Especially concerning the sexuality. No matter–Bening alone makes you forgive any transgressions. Both Annette AND Dorothea give the impression of earning every line, every wrinkle, and every gray strand. It’s a powerhouse role from a great actress. And Gerwig is ON FIRE this year, with a quartet of features–plus in “Jackie”, and now this, she goes completely against her expected type. She’s superb…so Oscar is bound to forget her. Crudup, Fanning, and Zumann supply beautifully lived-in performances too. “20th Century Women” floats, and wanders, and often hits the bullseye. It’s a wonderful movie.

Grade:  A-

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