20th Century Women

Annette Bening in a cross between I Remember Mama and A Portrait of the Artist

There was a haze, a fuzziness, hovering around the characters in Mike Mills’ 2010 film Beginners. Much of it had to do with the emotional impact of grief and the inability of the main character to connect with other people. Mills employed washed-out colors and hushed the human interactions down to a controlled stillness. The filmmaker rebukes that kind of celluloid fade-out in 20th Century Women, a seaside movie teeming with the mess of American lives in the late 1970s. A gifted visual memoirist, the director speaks in his own adolescent voice as well as in his late mother’s. The result is a cross between I Remember Mama and what might be called A Portrait of the Artist as an Adolescent. Annette Bening plays Dorothea, the single mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) who senses a shift in the cultural zeitgeist and doubts her ability to solo-parent him. To compensate for her imagined failings, she willfully attracts an eccentric community of misfits in and around their decaying Edwardian house, among them Greta Gerwig as a red-haired photographer, Elle Fanning as Jamie’s unsentimentalized dream girl, and Billy Crudup as a New Age man who can’t quite plant his feet on the ground. It’s Bening’s presence, though, that quashes the quirk factor. She becomes the film’s conscience, restrained and questioning, her eyes filled with the turbulent blues of the nearby ocean waves.

20th Century Women
Rated R.Opens Friday at AMC Metreon.

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