New York Film Fest: Annette Bening Rockets Into Contention for '20th Century Women' (Analysis)

20th Century Woman - Annette Bening -Still - H - 2016
Merrick Morton/A24

"It seems that it's National Misogyny Day," New York Film Festival director Kent Jones said, in reference to the latest Donald Trump news, as he stepped to the microphone at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall on Saturday night to introduce the world premiere of Mike Mills' 20th Century Women. "So, in a bold effort to counter-program, we decided to show this film."

Jones was joking, of course, but it's true that nothing could have served as a better rebuttal to Trump's one-dimensional view of women than this dramedy, which lovingly celebrities their richness and complexity. Following its mid-fest Centerpiece screening and a standing ovation for its creators, it becomes the latest film to join the Oscar race, with lead actress Annette Bening standing a particularly strong shot at being recognized.

Mills' film, which apparently is largely autobiographical — unlike his first film, 2005's Thumbsucker, but quite like his second film, 2010's Beginners — centers on the relationship between a single mother (Bening) and her adolescent son (14-year-old Lucas Jade Zumann), as well as the extended family of women she enlists to help her raise him (Greta Gerwig plays a tenant in their home, Elle Fanning the girl he loves) during the summer of 1979.

Early on, I was worried that 20th Century Women would prove to be another Running With Scissors, the grating 2006 film, starring Bening, about another complicated mother and son surrounded by quirky characters, which was expected to be a big Oscar contender but ultimately got zero nominations. And indeed there are elements of the new film — its chapter titles, voiceover narration, soundtrack, etc. — that verge on being overly twee or maudlin. But because so many of its plot and character details ring so true, and because the actors who bring them to life are so talented, it ultimately won over the audience, who appreciated it as a warm, believable and touching tribute to a specific time (the 1970s), place (Santa Barbara) and, above all, single moms.

Every member of the film's ensemble does strong work — Fanning navigates a complex character with her usual excellence — but make no mistake about it: This is Bening's show. She is funny (with first-rate comedic timing), vulnerable (especially in a scene in which her son reads her a book excerpt about middle-aged women that he thinks describes her) and overall very likable (she couldn't have asked for a better send-off before the credits roll).

Not many movies anchored by a woman over 50 who aren't named Meryl Streep get made these days, but when they do, Academy members — just 14 percent of whom are younger than 50, according to the Los Angeles Times — tend to pay attention. As a result, I think the acting branch is likely to select 58-year-old Bening, from an unusually strong lead actress field, for a nom, and maybe even a win. She's up against some serious competition — La La Land's Emma Stone is tremendously impressive in the movie that's likely to win best picture, past winner Natalie Portman does jaw-dropping work in Jackie and we haven't even seen Viola Davis in Fences yet — but Bening may be able to hold her own. She has been on the scene for nearly 30 years. She's widely respected for her work onscreen and off (she's also a longtime representative of the actors branch on the Academy's board of governors). And she's been nominated four previous times — for 1990's The Grifters, 1999's American Beauty, 2004's Being Julia and 2010's The Kids Are All Right — but has yet to win. If Bening is recognized for this film, she should rest easy knowing that it was not merely in appreciation of her career, but of a very worthy performance.