The mood is melancholy, the road ahead unclear. Which may explain the slew of biographical, autobiographical novels and films in a meandering Proustian fashion that go for the past. And, just like Proust’s oeuvre, never boring but intriguing and beguiling at the same time. After the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, “My Struggle,” the gorgeous Mike Mills film, “20th Century Women.” I hadn’t seen “Beginners” or anything else by this director but will certainly be on the lookout from now on.
“Beginners” was about his father’s coming out, at an advanced age. The present film is about his mother who had fallen into a vat of feminism in the seventies, like many of us ingurgitating the worthy and timely along with the banal which seemed so new back then.
The part is played by a stunning Annette Bening, so good one cannot help but wonder how much richer a career she would have had without spending her years catering to the outsize ego of Warren Beatty (her husband in real life). Easily the best role of any woman, any color, any age, in recent years. Though she is more than ably seconded by both Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig.
There isn’t much story there, there never is in a tender, sort of exasperated and always nostalgic, memoir of this kind. The woman is a chain smoker, cigarettes define her and will ultimately kill her some years after those in which the film takes place. Her director son paints a thorough portrait of her complicated life, making ends meet by renting rooms in her big falling-apart house, trying to do the right thing with her awareness of the times and the moral, ethical, and social problems in a changing world, and mainly her relation to the fourteen-year old boy facing problems of his own, those of that tumultuous age.
Name any recent film that drew me in to such an extent and never let go. “20th Century Women” is so engrossing and so incredibly well-acted (Billy Cruddup does a lovely turn. Why don’t we see him more often?) that I completely forgot I was sitting in a dark theater watching a movie. Every recent picture (“La la Land,” “Loving,” “Manchester by the Sea,”), frail in comparison, tries too hard.