“Write what you know,” aspiring authors are always told. Filmmaker Mike Mills decided to write about his mother and the surrogate family he grew up with in Santa Barbara, California, circa 1979. 20th Century Women is a work of fiction but it’s not hard to recognize the reality that informs Annette Bening’s superb performance as a 58-year-old, chain-smoking single mom. A child of the Depression who loves Louis Armstrong and Casablanca, she can’t relate to the world of the late 70s feels that her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) needs other influences in his life. She asks her boarder (Greta Gerwig), a photographer facing cancer, and her son’s platonic but sexually precocious best friend (Elle Fanning), to help her raise Jamie. Another boarder, ex-hippie Billy Crudup, is restoring her house but isn’t much use in this arena.

Poor Jamie. He was getting along fine with his mom and now he’s bombarded with sexual matters he needn’t deal with just yet. Gerwig even gives him a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In time Bening realizes that she may need reeducation even more than her adolescent son.

Writer-director Mills was an award-winning graphic designer before he turned to filmmaking with Thumbsucker and Beginners (which was inspired by his father). He has fun with this movie’s color scheme and inserts black & white photo collages to accompany the first-person narration that appears from time to time, giving his characters the odd ability to tell us how their lives will unfold in the future. But I grew impatient with 20th Century Women and its self-absorbed characters.

The film is at its best when it focuses on Bening, who embraces all the contradictions of her character and makes them real. She expresses wordless love, anger, puzzlement, and so much more. The other actors all do good work but their characters seem more like an author’s construct than real people.

Ultimately, the value of 20th Century Women is that it provides Annette Bening with a prime showcase. If you’re a fan, it’s worth seeing just to watch her grapple with this challenging character.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024