Film & Television

“20th Century Women”: The Role Annette Bening Deserves

The other day, my husband and I took a roadtrip up the coast for a tapas lunch and drinks at an oceanfront hotel. Carly Simon’s 1972 classic “You’re So Vain” was playing on the radio.

“Did she ever say who this was about?” my husband mused.

“Warren Beatty,” we both remembered, laughing. With other romantic possibilities including Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson and Cat Stevens, we agreed that the young Simon “got around.”

“Of course, so did Warren Beatty,” I interjected, wary of any kind of slut-shaming.

“Until Annette Bening,” he reminded me. “Isn’t she starring in a new movie?”

She certainly is!

Bening is a phenomenal actress. Although she’s been nominated four times for Oscars (and won two Golden Globes), she doesn’t get as much attention — or as many leading roles — as she should. Part of this may be the lack of roles for older women overall (Bening is 59 this year). Or it may be that the actress holds out for interesting, dimensional characters, like Nic in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right.

Or her current — absolutely award-worthy — turn as Dorothea in 20th Century Women.

The new film is written and directed by Mike Mills, who drew from his own background being raised by a single mother and sister. (Similarly, his award-winning 2010 Beginners, was loosely based on a complicated relationship with his father.) The movie tells the story of teenager Jamie, growing up in 1979 Santa Barbara with his mother and a small circle of eccentrics. He is bright and likeable, but confused by conflicting messages about love, sexuality, drugs and alcohol, and even punk rock. Soulfully played by Lucas Jade Zumman, who seems at once younger and older than his purported fifteen years, Jamie often serves as the movie’s narrator. But, as the title suggests, it’s the women who are front and center here.

We immediately realize that Dorothea isn’t your average mother. When her car catches on fire outside the local super market, she first reminisces that it was “a great car,” the car that she and her ex- brought infant Jamie home in. Then, she invites the fire chief — and his entire brigade — to dinner, which, of course, embarrasses her son to no end. Then again, isn’t that what mothers are supposed to do?

But, Dorothea is a determined and deliberate mom. As she realizes that her son is growing up (and growing away from her), she worries that he doesn’t have access to the influences that would make him a good man. Early on, we learn that Jamie only hears from his absent father sporadically, and Dorothea’s relationships with other men don’t last — when a coworker asks her out for a drink, he admits that the rest of the team assumes she’s a lesbian. The only man in their lives is William (Billy Crudup), a boarder who fixes cars and supervises the never-ending renovation of Dorothea’s ramshackle antique house in lieu of rent. So, since William is a bit adrift himself, Dorothea enlists the aid of two other women to help raise Jamie.

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