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Mike Mills Digs Within Once More With ‘20th Century Women’

If “Beginners” was a love letter from Mike Mills to his father, “20th Century Women” is a love letter to his mother. So the writer/director said at a recent Los Angeles screening of the film, which premieres at the New York Film Festival Saturday night.

“Doing ‘Beginners’ and working from my memories and real people, I just loved it and it was so meaningful to me and it seemed to catch on with an audience,” Mills said of his 2011 film, which won a supporting actor Oscar for Christopher Plummer. Plummer starred as a man who, like Mills’ father, came out as gay very late in life.

“You might get the impression from these two films that I know my parents so well and we’re so close, but that’s not really the case,” Mills continued. “[My dad] wasn’t really present in our house. Like, he didn’t know where the fork drawer was in the kitchen. We just didn’t connect. And my mom made me in many ways, but she’s also very much a mystery to me. I think people born in the ’20s are very secretive and my mom was very playful, very ironic, very iconoclastic and very not-going-to-tell-you-what’s-really-going-on.”

In “20th Century Women,” Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a 1970s Santa Barbara matriarch raising a son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), without a father. To help get him through adolescence, Dorothea calls on Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a pink-haired free spirit renting a room in her house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s childhood friend for whom he’s developed romantic feelings. That dynamic of being brought up by women is very much reflective of Mills’ life as well.

“It felt like I was raised by my mom and sisters,” he said. “So I was always appealing to women in the punk scene or women in my world. I always leaned to them to figure out my life as a straight white guy. So I wanted to make a movie about that.”

The result is, as you might imagine, a lovely companion to “Beginners,” and Bening delivers her best performance since at least 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right.” Dorothea is a progressive woman of resolve with an inner complexity that reveals itself in interesting ways. She’s a vibrant character, and Bening makes a strong case for Oscar attention.

But is it a lead or a supporting performance?

It’s actually a debatable point, one we’ll get into further in next week’s Oscar column. But Gerwig is outstanding in the film as well. She gets an engrossing backstory to play with and offers up some of her most intricately emotional work yet. Nothing is stopping both from being nominated — in separate categories or the same. But we’ll have to see how A24 plays it out and, more importantly, how the Academy’s actors branch perceives the work.

For Mills, however, it’s another cathartic work, one that took three years to bleed out onto the page and plenty of trial and error to find the right mixture of biographical brushstrokes and manifested drama.

Or, as he put it: “Years of failure and a miracle at the end that you can’t explain on a stage.”

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