Nonconformist beats the odds
by David Lamble
Early on in Mike Mills' absorbing feminist comedy-drama 20th Century Women, a small group of Santa Barbara, California residents are watching a distinctly gloomy presidential sermon from the James Earl Carter White House, just before American voters handed the one-time Georgia peanut farmer his walking papers. As was so often the case in the brief Carter era, the living room is fiercely divided. A young male quips, "He is so screwed. It's over for him!," while a strong-willed middle-aged woman opines, "Really, I thought it was beautiful."
In 2011, director Mills offered up a witty posthumous portrait of his father, who had spent a lifetime squashing his true sexual identity. In Beginners, we got to rejoice for the dad (that year's Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner, Christopher Plummer) as he got a handful of years to be loud and proud. His straight son (Ewan McGregor) was considerably conflicted over the event, given that his dad's struggles have seemingly kept him from having a proper adult relationship himself.
It not unfair to observe that 20th Century Women, with its growing tide of awards-season buzz for its star Annette Bening, arrives as the second half of a matched set of movies, devoted to writer-director Mills' ongoing preoccupation with how hard it is to ever really know anyone. My favorite from the Mills list remains his gloriously funny debut, the taboo-smashing adolescent comedy Thumbsucker, in which his teen-boy protagonist sticks to his favorite tension-relieving habit long after it has become more than a little embarrassing to classmates and kinfolk alike. That film demonstrated Mills' ability to find just the right parts of Walter Kirn's bestselling novel to film, and just how to allow the plucky title character (a truly pot-stirring turn from then-newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci) to overcome every obstacle thrown up in his path.
20th Century Women gives Bening's leading lady a host of obstacles, starting with the fiery destruction of her car and her decision to keep her nonconforming son home from school. And this may be just the moment when award-season voters find Bening's late-70s non-conformist precisely the right character with whom to send a message to President-Elect Donald J. Trump.
Be that as it may, 20th Century Women is a fabulous homage, specifically to Mills' mom, but also to any woman and her true family about what to value, and when not to shut up when bullies threaten. Bening, herself the mother of four kids with actor Warren Beatty (including a trans son), recently told The New York Times how much contemporary young people are teaching her, and how proud she is to share the awards-season spotlight with other bold efforts, such as the African American gay-themed drama Moonlight . "I feel good that a lot of the movies this year point to these issues: homophobia, poverty, xenophobia, sexism. Moonlight put viewers right inside someone's heart. God, that makes me feel really good about what movies can do, especially right now."
Award-season honors are often about as memorable as yesterday's weather – how many of us can name the last few years' winners? But important careers can endure and leave us with crucial defining cultural benchmarks. A few years back I was privileged to sit next to Bening as she gamely sat for a group interview about a distinctly LGBTQ-friendly feature, The Kids Are All Right. As I wrote in my review: "The film is an exhilarating same-sex family tale capturing a slew of hilarious unintended consequences, including a series of unauthorized sleepovers and a bravura drunken dinner party where Annette Bening channels her inner Joni Mitchell. While avoiding the dreaded topic of lesbian bed death, the filmmakers invoke screwball's motif of the main couple undergoing a kind of symbolic divorce followed by a magical remarriage. Oscar bait: ACT alum Bening richly deserves her third stab at Best Actress honors for a new type of screen heroine, the lesbian mom overcoming the odds and keeping her gal and family."
In 2017, I suspect award voters will finally give Annette Bening a long overdue prize, both for one of this year's outstanding comedy-dramas, but also for a career where she has just kept plugging away, as the best ones usually do.