'20th Century Women' actress Annette Bening's performance is a marvel

'20th' stars Annette Bening as a single mother with a 15-year-old son who enlists acquaintances Abbie and Julie to help her teach son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) to be a responsible man.

Merrick Morton/A24/AP
'20th Century Women' stars Annette Bening (l.) and Lucas Zade Zumann (r.).

Has Annette Bening ever given a bad performance? I’ve been unable to recall a single one. In “20th Century Women,” which is set in 1979, she plays Dorothea Fields, a single mother with a 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and a houseful of renters occupying her ramshackle Santa Barbara, Calif. home.

Early in the movie, her Ford Galaxy explodes into flames in a parking lot and the firemen who extinguish the blaze are dragooned to her place for an outdoor party. This is her way of thanking them, but also maybe she’ll meet a guy. If nothing else, this superannuated hippie likes the conviviality of congregations.

Without Bening, whose performance is a watchful and laid-back marvel, “20th Century Women,” written and directed by Mike Mills, would still be borderline worth seeing because of its supporting cast: Billy Crudup as William, the handyman lodger, a good-natured Lothario; Greta Gerwig – in a very toned-down performance by Gerwig standards – as Abbie, a punkish photographer with close-cropped hair; and Elle Fanning as Julie, Jamie’s somewhat older friend, who sneaks into his bedroom at night but only to sleep with him – no sex.

Dorothea wants Jamie to grow into a responsible man but, without a man around to instruct him (William is of no use), she enlists Abbie and Julie. Abbie’s idea of helping out is to give the boy a copy of “Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement.” Jamie laps it up.

Mills is one of those filmmakers who often ruins his own best effects with a lot of cutesy narrative tricks and cinematic sleight of hand, such as the way he sometimes speeds up the action into a herky-jerky procession of images in order to signal the frenetic passage of time. 

But he’s good with actors, and with Bening especially, he’s really keyed into her prodigious gifts. He’s given her a role that allows her to luxuriate in her genius for playing people who are simultaneously supercynical and hyperinnocent. Grade: B (Rated R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use.)

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