By Bill Wine

By Bill Wine

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Annette Bening is such a precise and dependable screen actress in parts big and small that we take her excellence for granted.

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But her ability to create lived-in characters jumps off her resume, which includes Bugsy, The American President, Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids Are All Right – each of the last four bringing her a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

She transcends the material once again in 20th Century Women, a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama that benefits greatly from her reliable anchoring presence.

She plays Dorothea Fields, a single mother in Santa Barbara, California, in 1979 – as the seventies are eventuating into the eighties and the culture is transforming itself– trying to raise her 15-year-old son, Jamie, played by newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, while managing a dilapidated boardinghouse.

But Jamie, whose point of view the film adopts, is not really the main focus, as the title indicates. And even though it is on his behalf that the female characters cooperate as we get to know them, Mills is merely using Jamie as a device that will help us get to know them.

In that regard, Dorothea turns to her two younger female boarders in the hope that they can learn things about her son that a young man might not be so willing to share with his mother but that he might casually reveal to friends. And thus the three of them, as the particular insecurities and anxieties of each is gradually revealed, comprise the title characters and manage Jamie’s upbringing in committee fashion in their decidedly makeshift, quasi-bohemian family.

One, Abbie, is a free-spirited, punk-artist photographer played by Greta Gerwig; the other, Julie, a provocative teenager engaged in a platonic (her choice) relationship with Jamie, is played by Elle Fanning. And Billy Crudup portrays laid-back William, another lodger who earns his keep as a handyman.

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20th Century Women comes from writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), whose drama about his father, Beginners, won a Best Supporting Oscar for Christopher Plummer.

This one is his ode to his nonconformist mother – and could be providing a similar platform for Bening – and his sisters.

The nostalgic theme Mills is focused on in this bittersweet memory flick is the people who raise us and the times they raise us during.

His approach to the material is certainly tender and introspective, and purposely, appropriately messy. But the film is hardly dramatic or momentous.

Still, Mills’ obvious affection for his characters washes over the plotlessness so that we hardly notice.

Dorothea is a bundle of contradictions smoothly integrated by the subtle and expressive Bening in a three-dimensional character who couldn’t be more lived-in.

The writ-large title may indicate otherwise, but this is a movie of minimal moments that matter, especially when they’re in the hands of the masterful Bening, whom we never, not for a moment, catch acting.

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So we’ll raise 2-1/2 stars out of 4. Short of electrifying but long on affability, 20th Century Women is a complex portrait of unconventional motherhood timelessly and flawlessly painted by Annette Bening.