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Annette Bening makes 'Twentieth Century Women' special

In a perfect world, Annette Bening would have made three times the number of films that she's actually made.

But she didn't. She's been married to Warren Beatty since 1992 and raised a fairly complex family with him, including an extremely prominent trans-gender son.

There aren't that many Hollywood actresses about whom it's so widely thought that they should have worked more, which makes Bening special. And that's also what makes Mike Mills' film "20th Century Women" a little special despite being only a mildly appealing independent film comedy about '70s feminism and family.

But it's not the only reason.

It's a semi-autobiographical film about the 1970s boyhood of its writer/director who, if we believe the film, was a sensitive adolescent boy who grew up amid the "20th Century Women" of the title, which is both droll and not ironic at all.

He is, then, growing up in the era when second-generation feminism is blooming. (He is played by Lucas Jade Zumann.) To educate horny teenage boys about what women are all about women are wont to give their 15-year-old sons the anthology "Sisterhood is Powerful" and Simone DeBeauvoir's "The Second Sex." You get the picture.

Not a bad idea, really, however amusing.

Bening plays the boy's mother who is, by no means, hidebound by anyone else's idea of social propriety. If, for instance, her son has his own reasons for skipping school, she'll sign on the dotted line of his excuse.

She's 55 and lives in a house that seems too big for her so she rents part of it out. One of her tenants is a smart, talented and neurotic photographer who dyed her hair red after seeing David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell To Earth." She's played by the irresistible Greta Gerwig. Another tenant is a mechanic played by Billy Crudup. He also functions as the house's live-in handyman and its designated renovator. Since he is also sharing his landlady's bed on occasion, the "renovation" metaphor is being wittily overplayed.

Our young boy is 15. What is somewhat odd about his education in life is that his mother has asked two young women to guide him into manhood in a way she fears she's too old to do. One of those women is her tenant. The other, though, is the 17-year-old girl who is the boy's best friend and who is, in fact, driving him a little nuts by sleeping in his bed sexlessly while also telling him about her sex life with other boys. She is played by Elle Fanning who is in a fertile period indeed at your local movie theater (see Ben Affleck's "Live By Night").

At that point, our photographer -- who retains more than a little sensitivity and common sense -- tells her young male student of "Sisterhood is Powerful" to stop being abused by a young girl who is tormenting his bubbling hormones just for the sake of eliciting his emotional support.

Talk about a very modern form of sexual exploitation.

This plot wrinkle develops with logical credibility and no melodramatic underlining. This is a movie way too smart for that.

"20th Century Women" isn't overtly that funny, but it's nicely witty and droll enough to bring forth happy laughs and chortles anyway.

If the happy rarity of seeing a movie starring Bening is the most obvious virtue of "20th Century Women," the hidden virtue is the unusual nature of the film's writer/director Mike Mills. The fact that his previous film was a version of Walter Kirn's novel "Thumbsucker" doesn't tell you nearly as much as these two facts: he once made a documentary about music system that Ornette Coleman called "harmolodics" and he is married to performance artist and writer Miranda July.

If you were the too-seldom-employed Bening, you would come out of partial retirement, too, when this guy called. And even though you have no chance of winning, you would show up for the movie at all those award shows too.


"20th Century Women"

3 stars (out of 4)

Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann

Director: Mike Mills

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: R for sex, language, nudity and drugs.

The Lowdown: A single woman raises her 15-year-old son to be a feminist in the 1970s.


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