Save for a single, ill-judged and really rather jarring shot (you’ll know it when you see it) pretty much everything about 20th Century Women is spot on. It’s warm, wonderfully written, frequently very funny and, most crucially, genuine. Almost every scene, conversation and little interaction connects in a very real and recognisable way, and that’s no mean feat. On paper the largely plotless plot threatens a tidal wave of insufferable quirk, but with writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners) pulling the strings and Annette Bening delivering a truly staggering central performance you’re likely to spend almost the entire film with a well-earned lump in your throat.
How Bening wasn’t among the nominees for this year’s Best Actress Oscar is anyone’s guess. She’s simply brilliant as Dorothea, a smart, free-spirited single mum who’s nonetheless bewildered by much of the modern world that teenage son Jamie (impressive newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) will have to negotiate. She grew up during the Depression, volunteered to serve in the Second World War and, rightly or wrongly, remembers a time when people had a collective identity and direction. Now, in late-70s California, nothing seems to mean anything anymore. With Vietnam, the spread of crass, soul-withering commercialism and Reagan just around the corner, society seems so much more fractured, angry and complex.
Dorothea is desperate for her son to get the guidance he needs, and as she feels so out of step and his dad isn’t around anymore (he sometimes calls on birthdays) it’s the less-than-conventional folks who share and frequent her enormous, ramshackle home that get the call. There’s not much of a connection with sensitive, sweet-natured handyman William (Billy Crudup, brilliant), but between punk-obsessed photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and mixed-up teen tearaway Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie winds up with a crash course in everything from the importance of clitoral stimulation to how to look cool while smoking.
Beyond that nothing much happens, but as each poignant, insight-packed episode unfolds you’re left with a film about people fumbling through life, often feeling lost and confused, that does something very special – it avoids mawkish sentimentality and rings completely true. We also get the changing times and challenging of accepted norms and conventions woven skilfully into the background, the use of music – think Bowie, Talking Heads and even As Time Goes By – is superb, and at times the dialogue is nail-on-the-head great. Naturally Bening gets most of the best lines (“Having your heart broken just seems like a good way to learn about life”), but nobody gets left out. It’s Crudup who steals the show during a dinner party scene that descends into talk of menstruation, scarring sexual experiences and – because why not – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.