In 2010, writer/director Mike Mills penned a film loosely based on his father called “Beginners,” with Christopher Plummer taking home an Oscar for his work. This week Mills has turned his pen towards his mother, with Annette Bening shining through in a performance that could end up the same way as Plummer’s did with Oscar gold.
Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a 15-year old boy being raised by a less then orthodox mother. We learn from Jamie that his mom Dorothea (Bening) wanted to be a pilot but instead now holds a high position with a major company. Dorothea is 55 and divorced. She doesn’t date much and, when she does, it doesn’t last long. Her world is Jamie. Or so she thinks. Her world also consists of Abbie (Gerwig), a boarder dealing with the possibility of having cervix cancer, William (Billy Crudup), a former hippie with a knack for fixing cars and pottery bowls, and Julie (Fanning), a neighborhood girl that Jamie is helplessly in love with. As their stories intertwine, it’s hard to see who the mature member of the “family” is and who the child is.
Set in 1979, the film makes great use with its pop culture references. Musical acts like the Raincoats and Black Flag dot the soundtrack while references to President Ford falling down the stairs of Air Force One or President Carter addressing the nation and it’s “crisis of confidence” – now referred to as “the Malaise Speech” – help set the tone of the on-screen action. As someone who remembers these events, and the “groovy” clothes from the period, it triggered some fond memories of my youth.
The film does have some problems with its pacing, but the energy jumps up when any of the three female leads are on screen. Fanning and Gerwig are both solid, especially since neither one of them were born in the time the film takes place. But it is Bening, one of our most overlooked talents, who shines here. She mines her emotional depths as she tries to find ways to connect with her son while still trying to maintain a lifestyle she has reluctantly become accustomed to. It is one of her finest performances and one I sincerely hope the Academy recognizes this year.