I don’t often write my letters to the cast part of Dear Cast & Crew. I find it far more interesting to celebrate (or sometimes excoriate) people behind the camera since these fine folks rarely get their due. But you are different, dear Annette. Or maybe not. Too often you are overlooked when awards season comes around. Sure, you’ve been nominated plenty, and I thought this year you would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod for this role in 20th Century Women. But I think I’ve found the reason the Golden Boy remains out of your reach; you make it look easy. Like most parents of teenagers, I’m afraid we take you for granted. You’re just too damn good.
You are like an experienced sound engineer or lighting tech; you have become a master at your craft. Films rely on people of your calibre to run smoothly. Your work is seamless, appearing effortless. You inject your characters with a singularity so organic that once you’ve taken on a role it’s impossible to imagine anyone else owning it. If it seems like I’m gushing, please forgive me. In 20th Century Women you play the head-strong Dorothea, a mom at a loss to understand her teenage son in 1979 Santa Barbara. You were a stand-in for writer/director Mike Mills’ mother, but within the first few minutes of watching you on screen, I felt a creeping sense of familiarity. You were standing in for my mother too.
Like Dorothea, my mother had me late in life. And like Dorothea, my mother didn’t remarry after my father died. Mum raised me by herself, but she was not alone. She collected people, and our house was never empty. Like Dorothea did for her 15-year-old son Jamie, Mum allowed me a great deal of independence, probably more than I deserved. Some moments in the film seemed ripped from my own life, and you gave me the gift of reliving them through my mother’s perspective.
The film opens on Dorothea’s car on fire in a grocery store parking lot on her birthday. Our family car caught on fire at Loblaws on my 10th birthday, and now I understand how Mum was able to shake it off. Dorothea doesn’t understand her son’s music, but makes the effort to try. My Mum raced out to a house party I was at when I called to check in and told her the noise in the background was The Cult. She was mortally embarrassed when she realized it was a band, and not an actual cult.
The commonality of the struggles of raising a teenager alone have never been illustrated so artfully. 20th Century Women gave me a deeper understanding of not just what my mother went through, but what my other single mom friends endure. When Jamie yells at Dorothea, “Mom, I’m dealing with everything right now, you are dealing with nothing!” I actually gasped from shame at having said something so similar to my Mum. Jamie apologizes for Dorothea’s eccentricities much the way I did with my Mum; Jamie, “she’s from the Great Depression” (me: “she grew up during the War”). What Mills does beautifully is provide context for each of his characters by recognizing the importance of their time and place in the world; where they are from, who they are in 1979, and who they will become.
Mills’ background is in advertising and music video direction, and it shows here in the best possible way. Mills incorporates multi-character narration, historical footage, and period-relevant books, music and politics to tell the story of an unconventional family that manages to be both unique and relatable.
Affectations that I dismissed as twee in Mills’ previous autobiographical turn, Beginners, are more mature in 20th Century Women and far less mannered. But like Beginners, the cast he assembled here is exemplary. Greta Gerwig as the wounded punk Abbie, Elle Fanning as the wise-beyond-her-years Julie, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie, have a natural chemistry that makes us root for this unorthodox family. But it’s your scenes with Billy Crudup’s William, Dorothea’s handyman boarder, that I wished would never end. Seeing two amazing actors play people so funny and flawed yet self-aware is a rare treat. When people lament the loss of mid-budget films celebrating real people, they should hold this film up as a champion of the type of story that is both small and universal, where nothing and everything happens.
For a long time I bemoaned the fact that my favourite actor, Jeff Bridges, was infuriatingly underrated. Then he won an Oscar for Crazy Heart in 2010 and now I have to share him with everyone who finally recognizes his brilliance. Like a jealous child, part of me wants to keep you all to myself. But like a proud daughter, I want the rest of the world to reward the incredible work you do making complex characters knowable. I have no doubt your time will come.