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'20th Century Women' reconstructs the feminist moment, circa 1979

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There's sex—some—though with more awkwardness and regrets than action. There's not much in the way of drugs, just some beer and lots of cigarettes. Rock 'n' roll, definitely: an ongoing battle between punk and art music (think: Talking Heads). Plenty of talk about women's orgasms, which—hey!—20th Century Women reminds us does not automatically fall under the Sex heading the way it does for men. And a scene around a dinner table in which menstruation and painful virginity-losing is discussed, and everyone else gets embarrassed. Ah, the glory of women making men—and sometimes other women—uncomfortable by talking about their lives! That's 20th Century Women in its poignant, hilarious nutshell.

Dorothea (Annette Bening) lives circa 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, in an old Victorian house that is being torn apart in an attempt to put it back together again in a better way. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling of the big central hall, a wound at the intersection of yesterday's molding and tomorrow's fresh paint. That renovation describes Dorothea, too. Now fifty-something, she had her son, Jamie (up-and-comer Lucas Jade Zumann), when she was in her 40s, and while she's a hip divorcée with shades of bohemia about her, she's also a product of her childhood. "She's from the Depression," 15-year-old Jamie says with bittersweet resignation, as if that explains her attitude about people needing to help each other out when everyone else at the moment is into hedonism and individualistic self-expression. Jamie's a bit annoyed that his mother has chosen to enlist their lodger, punk art photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and their morose neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning)—with whom Jamie is desperately and hopelessly in love—as assistants in turning Jamie into a feminist man who knows how to be friends with women.

20th Century Women stars Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann.
  • 20th Century Women stars Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann.

This will somewhat backfire on Dorothea, because she's that hole in the ceiling: It's easier to see her past than her future, though a dim outline is taking shape. Bening, who has never been finer and more on fire with vitality and passion, whips Dorothea into one of the most pensively delightful characters you will ever meet onscreen. Writer-director Mike Mills, with his third feature after the wonderful Thumbsucker and Beginners, has spun a semi-autobiographical ode to the women of his childhood into a melancholy story of living in the now. This story may take place in 1979, but there is nothing nostalgic about it. 20th Century Women stays rooted in its moment, when the world was changing for women and men were forced to make some changes, too. (Another lodger, William, is a pleasant layabout jack-of-all-arts played by Billy Crudup as if he is content to get washed along with the tsunami of feminism.)

Dorothea, Abbie and Julie (along with Jamie and William) are at the edge of a new world, like everyone always is. The relentless nowness and the charming confusions of this ad hoc family are a sort of relief: Oh, thank god, everyone else is screwed up too, and they always were. They're all dealing with the results of unrealistic expectations, something Abbie applies to the punk rock musicians she loves: Their passion cannot save them from lack of talent, and that frustration is expressed in their ear-splitting songs. 20th Century Women is not a movie you walk out of feeling like you're dancing on air. It's an even rarer sort of movie that charges you up with its raw energy.

20th Century Women opens at the Roxy Fri., Feb. 10.

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