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20th Century Women

A mother thinks she knows best but is blissfully deluded in writer-director Mike Mills' autobiographical drama set in the warm glow of late 1970s California. Loosely constructed as a series of bittersweet vignettes, 20th Century Women adds a fictional gloss to the filmmaker's memories of his free-spirited mother, played on screen by the luminous Annette Bening. It's a peach of a role for the four-time Academy Award nominee, who glides through each nostalgia-tinged frame armed with killer one-liners ("Wondering if you're happy is a great shortcut to being depressed,") as she hungrily sucks inspiration from an omnipresent cigarette. Her character even has a tart retort for her nicotine addiction - "When I started they weren't bad for you, they were stylish and sort of edgy," - which allows her to puff merrily in front of her teenage son. There is no clear narrative thrust to Mills' freewheeling screenplay, but for all its fragmented reminiscence, the script does fully bring to life deeply flawed yet lovable characters as they wrestle with self-worth, sexual awakening and mortality. The epicentre of the emotional whirl is bohemian mom Dorothea Fields (Bening), who gave birth to her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) when she was 40. She divorced her husband, who telephones on Jamie's birthday and at Christmas, but otherwise, mother and son are an inseparable unit. They share a ramshackle home in Santa Barbara with New Wave photographer Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig) and handyman William (Billy Crudup), who is slowly renovating the property. This madcap menagerie of misfits is completed by 17-year-old waif Julie (Elle Fanning), the object of Jamie's hormone-driven affections, who refuses to entertain his clumsy fumbles. "Friends can't have sex and still be friends," explains Julie. "I like us like we are." Duly rebuffed, Jamie focuses his clumsy efforts instead on Abbie's punk friend, Trish (Alia Shawkat), who worries that he is too young. "Age is a bourgeois construct," he counters. Meanwhile, Dorothea grows concerned that she can't provide for her son's emotional needs and entreats Abbie and Julie to help her shepherd Jamie across the rubicon to adulthood. Anchored by Bening's tour-de-force theatrics, 20th Century Women is a compelling family portrait daubed in a similar style to Mills' previous picture, Beginners, starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor. Both films show boundless affection for their characters and their manifold foibles, accepting that there are no easy solutions to the friction that naturally exists between parents and their children. Newcomer Zumann is a revelation, holding his own in revered company as his teenager searches for equilibrium without a father figure to guide him through various upheavals. Generous laughs punctuate the sensitively handled soul-searching, which builds into a colourful mosaic of flashbacks, knowing voiceovers and heartbreaking regret.