The British experience of Oscar season is a little less glamorous than that of America – rather than extended campaigns for recognition, the films concerned are often either just entering cinemas, on still some weeks off. This can make it a little hard to know what to see and what not to see – all the good stuff comes out at once. So, too, it means that Oscar snubs and controversies are only judged in retrospect – with the help of 20:20 hindsight. As such, it is easy to argue that Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women was unlucky to go by without a nomination from the Academy – quite who would have missed out at her expense is another question (surely Meryl Streep).
Benning plays Dorothea, single mother to a 15 year old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). In her large, crumbling house she hosts lodgers who she hopes could be prominent in his adolescent development – Greta Gerwig is at her best as the reckless Abbie, and Billy Crudup incredibly sweet as the shy William. Elle Fanning excels, meanwhile, as the sometime secret resident and wild child Julie, subject to a long-standing crush from the younger Jamie.
If this sounds a bit like a Lifetime movie or BBC standalone drama, the witty script and effervescent performances elevate the film enormously. Benning is vulnerable, brittle and curious as she attempts to understand the lives of those younger than herself, and is never any less than utterly convincing and real. Elle Fanning is equally impressive, with a slighter role that she fills with defiance and self-doubt; this is more standard fare than The Neon Demon, and correspondingly bodes extremely well for her career in the mainstream. Gerwig and Crudup provide excellent backup, the former in particular mastering the blend between vulnerability, honesty and combative instincts which all of the female characters embody to one degree or another.
As Jamie undergoes changes in attitude and upbringing, and as he confronts some of the awkwardness of his female-led life, we are given vignette histories of his supporting cast, and while these function nicely during the film, its epilogue’s return to the form does stray into the saccharine – which is a summation of the film’s only failing, its lack of teeth. There are scenes which do hit hard, but which certainly could hit harder. However, this is no deep shame, and writer-director Mike Mills has nonetheless helmed a tremendous and joyful picture.