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Annette Bening draws from real life in her latest role

Ed Harris and Annette Bening in The Face of Love.

IFC Films

It happens to everybody: You're walking down the street, and suddenly you spy someone who's a dead ringer for someone you know. It's always a tingly experience, evoking the mysteries of others' lives, and the lives you could be living but aren't. It's especially unsettling when the person you swear you're seeing is no longer alive.

A few years ago, it happened to the mother of the writer-director Arie Posen (whose first feature was The Chumscrubber): She saw her late husband coming at her in a Los Angeles crosswalk, a big smile on his face. She froze in the street. He blew past her. The light changed, cars honked, and she kept going.

She felt warmed by the experience, but Posen, who was only 19 when his dad died, had a different reaction: He began obsessing over it, even dreaming about it.

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Eventually he wrote a script and made a movie about it, The Face of Love, starring Annette Bening as Nikki, a woman who falls for the unwitting doppelganger of her husband (Ed Harris), who'd dropped dead on vacation five years earlier. It opens in select cities on Friday.

"For me it was a sort of wish fulfilment," Posen said in an interview during the past Toronto International Film Festival. "I thought I was making a movie about this thing that happened to my mom, but, as often happens, you discover you're actually making a movie about yourself."

He deliberately set it five years after the death, when it seemed that Nikki had moved on. "But as anyone who's experienced loss knows, you don't move on," Posen says. "You just learn to live with the absence."

The film plays with our expectations – is Nikki experiencing ordinary delayed grief, or is she unstable? – and that complexity drew in Bening, a four-time Oscar nominee (most recently for The Kids Are All Right).

"I was really surprised by the script," she said in a separate interview.

"I was moved by it, intrigued by it, so I wanted to help guide the audience to feel those same things when they were watching it, if I could."

I've interviewed Bening, 55, a few times, and it's always a highlight.

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Although she possesses innate elegance and glamour, she has never lost her Midwestern modesty. (She was raised in Kansas and went to community college in San Diego, where she fell in love with theatre's combination of "intellectual rigour and emotional passion.")

Intelligent, engaged, she's constantly referencing things, from a TED talk about vulnerability to the work of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. Rarely does she talk about herself – this is a woman who knows how to keep her private life private, though it includes a 22-year marriage to Warren Beatty and four children ages 14 to 22. (Her eldest, Stephen, who was born Kathlyn, is a public figure, however; he has done PSA's about issues concerning transgendered people.)

"I'm interested in writing that explores all sides of human beings," Bening says.

"I find the reality of our emotional lives interesting. I wanted to try to capture that Nikki was a woman who didn't know that she'd never gotten over her husband's death. She didn't know how deep and confused that pain and sadness was."

But getting that story to the screen wasn't easy. "Uphill battle does not even begin to cover it," Posen says. Despite having Bening, Harris and Robin Williams (who plays a neighbour who's in love with Nikki) in the movie, and their powerful agents behind it, not a single financing entity in Hollywood would back it.

After 18 fruitless months, they turned away from the system and courted wealthy connections who'd never invested in a film before.

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"It's a smart investment, because there's a huge audience for these movies," Posen says. "Older filmgoers ask me all the time, 'Why don't they make movies for me anymore? I have time, disposable income, and the habit of going.' It was an unhappy education to realize Hollywood doesn't see the potential. Movies are about a collective dream we're having. To ignore an enormous, real segment of the audience, [people] who are dealing with a lot and eager to see stories about themselves, is to me foolhardy."

These days, a film with older actors and the word "face" in the title could be a freak show, but Posen makes a strong argument for natural beauty.

"This is a movie about real life, and to be real, the first step is to look real," he says.

"Being open like that, that's the job," Bening agrees.

"Yes, there are times it frightens me. But I know that it is what I want to do. I love saying, 'Show my face.' Not only the reality of aging, but also the reality of what your face looks like when you're having certain feelings or reactions. When I first started doing movies, I had a hard time watching myself for that reason. I had to find a way to put all of that mental chatter aside and give myself to the stories."

Why not wear your years as a badge of honour, Bening continues? You've earned them. "At this point in life, everything is deepening, and I like that," she says.

"I like that I've been through things, that when something happens, it resonates with something that already happened. It's not that things like loss are more or less painful. But they're deeper. I find that fascinating."

In the film, Nikki has a daughter, played by Jess Weixler (the blonde investigator on The Good Wife), who has a strong reaction to her mother's new beau, and that drew Bening in, too. "Our children see us a certain way, and we want to be seen by them in a certain way," she says. "I certainly want to be a strong, stable, loving, consistent presence in my children's lives. But we are human beings, too. We're going through what we're going through. What if you don't remain that thing that everyone thinks you are?"

When you're younger, she goes on, "you think you'll get to a point where you've arrived. But in your 50s, you can really be transforming, in ways that nobody expected. Part of it comes from illness or losing the people around you, but there's also so much vitality in my generation. It's such a time of growth."

Bening feels lucky that she still loves her job, and that it, too, is always evolving. "I don't feel cynical about it at all," she says. "The business is going through what it's going through, but it doesn't bother me. I just figure I'm going to continue doing the work that I do. As long as I have that, it's like my medicine."

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