Like a gentle Californian costal breeze, 20th Century Women washes over audiences, proving the perfect antidote for a British winter. Meandering through a slight story, 20th Century Women is the kind of film that would be infuriating if it wasn't so skilfully crafted. The cast is exemplary and it is a mystery how Annette Bening has not been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her wonderful performance here.
Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, 20th Century Women brings all the trappings of the era, from the questionable facial hair, through the explosion of punk rock (the soundtrack is perfection), to the evolution of the American teen. The film focuses on 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and three key women in his life. There is his single mother, Dorothea (Bening), their photographer tenant, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and his close friend and object of unrequited affection, Julie (Ellie Fanning). As with Mike Mills's previous film, the wonderful Beginners, 20th Century Women draws heavily from the director's life, and where the earlier film focused on his father, here it is his adolescence with his mother that is the source of inspiration.
Annette Bening is sensational in the role of the mother of the group, for both the biological and surrogate members of it. She brings a lightness and fragility to the role, and is the film's beating heart. It is a subtle performance, far from any overt displays of 'acting' you can find in an awards contender. Bening's performance is the equal of other career high points, including The Kids Are All Right and American Beauty. She is joined by an ensemble of strong supporting performances, in particular from Greta Gerwig. In this and Jackie, Gerwig seems to be shifting gears to take on smaller ensemble roles, and the outcome has been a pair of powerful performances. Gerwig is a ball of rage and fragility, carrying some of the heavier story elements, and it is probably her best role to date.
The film meanders along at its own pace, exploring the nuances of its characters' lives. 20th Century Women adopts multiple narrators, allowing the development of its ensemble. This does lead to an undeveloped lead role in Jamie and the film forgoes a clearly defined story to resemble a series of loosely connected incidents. Some will be frustrated by this, and this could be why the film has been relatively snubbed by the Academy, only receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. But the film is deserving of so much more, and as strong as the screenplay is, there should have been room for Bening and Gerwig's performances as well as Roger Neill's score and Sean Porter's cinematography amongst the Oscar nominees.
20th Century Women is a funny, warm drama that is unafraid to explore difficult topics. A deeply rewarding watch, the film builds on the skill shown by Mills with Beginners and produces a pair of award-worthy performances from Bening and Gerwig. Seek it out and let its costal breeze wash over you.