Summer of ’79: Mike Mills pays homage to his unconventional mom in ’20th Century Women’

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Writer-director Mike Mills is living proof that filmmakers should never leave home. Two out of his three features are portraits of his parents, individually rather than collectively, and he stewed over both a total of 11 years before they were a reality.

“My heart is in those features,” he confesses. “Writing weird scripts like these takes a long time because they’re so personal. I figured that I was only going to make a movie about my mom or my dad once in my life, so if I’m having any doubts or if I feel like there’s something else I needed to explore, then I’m going to explore it.”

Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for 2010’s Beginners, playing a facsimile of Mills’ father, who decided at age 75 to start over sexually and lived his last five years as a gay man. Now, it’s Annette Bening’s turn to win the Oscar in A24’s 20th Century Women, playing Mills’ remembrance of his mother, a tough, aging hippie who farms out the sexual education of her teenage son to two kindred free spirits.

The mere mention of Oscar causes Mills to grimace. “That sort of thing is totally out of your control,” he says, waving it away. “As a filmmaker, all you can control is your shoot and your edit. Then you send your ship out in the world. What happens from there on out is something you just don’t know. So many amazing things haven’t been awarded at Oscar time. You can’t say that if Annette doesn’t get the Oscar, it means that she didn’t give a really great performance with all her heart and her soul.”

For Mills, the margin between actor and role melted frequently before the cameras. “There were times when Annette was stressed like my mother, often wearing my mom’s jewelry or laying on my mom’s real bedspreads, in front of a painting that I lived with and grew up with—yeah, the gestalt is: ‘Wooo! That’s a lot like mom!’

“My mom was a very androgynous person. She didn’t fit in any feminine box at all. Annette is very beautiful, but she could perform a complete feminist. That was real important to me. And she has some sort of salt-of-the-earth thing, too, that my mom had. Also, they both had the same intelligence and the same subversive humor.”

His mother—unsentimental in the extreme, chain-smoking her way through her depression (“When I started, they weren’t bad for you—they were just stylish”)—succumbed to the inevitable in June of 1984. Mills was sure his father would soon follow suit, but instead, five months later at Thanksgiving, after 44 years of a frosty marriage, he took a sharp right turn into the gay life and stayed there till he died.

The movie that this surprising turn of events prompted inspired a maternal companion-piece film. “They kind of fed into each other,” Mills admits. “I got the idea for 20th Century Women when I was finishing Beginners. It is actually my personal life, but a person’s personal life and memories and inner world are all very real, and I approached this more like a journalist or a reporter than a personal participant.”

In fact, Mills is uncomfortable claiming either film is his story, although his character is present and contributing substantially to both. “Some people call this a coming-of-age movie,” he notes. “I really don’t find it that way at all. It’s a portrait of these three women—seen sometimes through his eyes, sometimes through their own eyes.

“He’s the witness. He doesn’t really change a lot—by design. It’s his appreciation of these women, which is really my appreciation of the women in my life who really raised me. In my life, the people who taught me to be a man were women. They’re the center of this movie. The men sometimes take on roles women usually have.”

Mills conjured up a number of different titles for this film, but once he struck on 20th Century Women, he knew he was home safe. “My entire focus—my main interest in writing this and the thing I love about it—is the women. The whole thing is a way to look at these women and kind of make it an ode to the women in my real life.

“Whenever I hear 20th-century anything, it always sounds to me like the grandest, most honored thing—but now it’s actually old. It’s the past. It’s history. And that kind of trip—that kind of pulling the rug out from underneath you—it’s something that I feel that history does to us all the time, something the films always are talking about. That’s one reason we always get our own futures—our collective futures—wrong.”

Primarily a music-video director and graphic designer, Mills may be the only filmmaker who is also a poster-maker. He did the art work for his first film, 2005’s Thumbsucker, as well as for Beginners five years later, and he collaborated with Neil Keller in creating an ad that accurately reflects what 20th Century Women is all about.

It displays the five leading characters lined up for what appears to be a day at the beach. Dead center, as she should be, is Bening, the soul and reason of the film. She is flanked by her beautiful deputies in charge of turning her son into a moral man—on the left by Greta Gerwig, who plays Abbie, a wannabe photographer on the mend from cervical cancer who rents a room at Bening’s rickety Santa Barbara boarding house, and on the right by Elle Fanning, a sexually progressive teen who keeps our hapless hero at arm’s length. Both are good bets for supporting-actress nominations. 

To the left of Gerwig is another renter, Billy Crudup. An all-purpose handyman and rather lackadaisical alpha-male for the boy, he’s not a barrel of laughs. (“You don’t have many funny lines,” Bening once observes) “My mom really was a contractor, an architect and drafts person,” Mills points out. “She built houses and worked with houses all the time, so you can imagine in 1979 in Santa Barbara the guys who are on her crew—almost like construction-worker guys—were a lot like Billy. They were often kind of lost, with a long in-between phase getting jobs. The late ’70s was kind of a transition from counterculture hippies ’60s to what we became in the ’80s. This guy sort of represents manhood in general, and the patriarchy in general in the late ’70s is sort of adrift and not the central focus, not the central power.”

Finally, almost as an afterthought, is the Mills stand-in, picking up and absorbing life lessons from the other four characters. He’s played by newbie Lucas Jade Zumann.

“I think the shot of them on the beach nicely captures how they are not a biological family but a chosen family, an improvised family, a kind of community—that’s key to the movie,” stresses Mills. “At the top of the ad is a panel of ’70s things, from Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees to Jimmy Carter, and that shows me that they are a portrait of a group of people at a very specific time and how our inner lives are very much influenced and shaped by the bigger social-historical moment that we live in.”

All the above get their say in the five-way narration. “I like multiple-perspective stories a lot. All through the story, it goes back and forth so you’ll see a change in the boy. I think ultimately the film is a series of portraits and a series of relationships, so it kind of makes sense that they talk about each other and describe each other to us, the audience. Films are so often singular—singular protagonist, singular narration, singular perspective. It was exciting for me to break from that. My film is, at heart, about people. It enhances the heart and lets people have their own perspective.”

The script for 20th Century Women, he says, took “two and a half to three years of writing all the way through. It was a five-plus-year project from when I started.”

Sometimes he found himself crying as he was writing. “I cry when I direct, too—more so on this film than Beginners. I cried once or twice doing Beginners, but because it was so emotional, I kind of held it together. Maybe this time, being the second time of working with this kind of material, I felt looser—and I just love those characters. Abbie is based on my sister, who I adore. And Dorothea is my mom, who I miss very much and who I felt so intertwined with. There were many times on set where I—I wasn’t, like, bawling, but I had tears in my eyes while I was directing, for sure.”

Dorothea Fields is the name Mills has assigned his mother—and, yes, he has never heard of Dorothy Fields, the lyricist of 400-plus songs (including the first Oscar-winning one, “The Way You Look Tonight”). “Dorothea is from Dorothea Lange, the Kushner photographer who had short hair and was very much like my mom. She also was this very rebellious, sort of proto-feminist kind of figure. At the end of Beginners, there’s a scene where they’re talking about a black-and-white photo of a hand-holding baby, and that’s a representation of my mom. A Dorothea Lange photo of that my family owned. Her ghost was all around the set. Christopher Plummer’s character in Beginners was named Hal Fields. You never knew his last name. It never came up, so I gave Dorothea his last name and kind of secretly kept them married.”

There are more secrets where that came from, and they’re literally littering the set: “A lot of the furniture is my parents’ furniture. There are pictures of my parents and my grandparents. All my family photos are the photos on the bedside table and on the wall. When my sisters saw the movie, they really tripped out. Annette is playing my mom, and right over her shoulder is a picture of my real mom on the wall. I feel like films are a very long magic trick, so if you know that, why not enchant the set—or, for that matter, enchant the whole project with a sort of indication of magic?”

Dorothea’s death is announced prematurely midway through the film—a slip by one of the five narrators. “That sort of sprang up to me when I was writing,” Mills recalls. “It was one of those little epiphanies in writing that made me like the script. That’s one of my favorite parts. It’s very undefendable and very strange structurally. It breaks a lot of rules. Maybe for that reason I liked it. But, also, it hikes the stakes of everything. I kind of feel like, ‘Well, if anyone can speak from the grave, it’s my mom.’ My mom always was a very strong, strange character. That actually felt true to the person I was trying to get a portrait of. But then I love Alain Resnais. I love Fellini. I love filmmakers who do things like that. Perhaps it wasn’t that wild of me after all.”

In many ways, 20th Century Women is more memoir than movie. Mills took critical flak for telling his story in scatter-shooting snapshots and stubbornly resisting a narrative thrust. That’s OK with him: “Narrative thrust isn’t my main interest. As an audience member, that’s not the films I love the most. Like, I love Fellini’s Amarcord—that movie has no plot. I guess I’m really interested in characters, their lives, their backgrounds, their relationships. I’m after mood and texture. I don’t feel like I made a totally plotless movie. I feel like my movie is like the movies I love.”

Having gone to college in New York, Mills attended many a New York Film Festival as a youth, but this was the first time he premiered a film there. As 2016’s Centerpiece Attraction, his 20th Century Women charmed critics and audiences alike.

“The audience was really laughing a lot, which, for a filmmaker is great. It just makes you feel you have a vital connection with the audience. From a big audience—and that was a big-ass theatre—laughter is quite a thing. It’s hard to explain how good that is. It’s really why you do all those years of work—for that moment right there.”