Director and filmmaker Mike Mills possesses something unique to Hollywood: a clear perception of strong women, as exemplified in his new film 20th Century Women. Serving as the film’s writer and director, Mills describes his new film as a “thank-you note” to the women who’ve raised him.
Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, 20th Century Women follows single mother Dorothea Fields, portrayed by Annette Bening, and her two neighbors Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) as they try to help Dorothea’s teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), navigate the tricky waters of manhood.
While the film pays homage to Mills’ own upbringing by his single, WWII fighter pilot trainee mother, his sister Meg, and her girlfriends, it is not a direct autobiography. Mills intent was not to create “a self-absorbed memoir.”
In an interview with RollingStone, Mills described 20th Century Women as an original coming-of-age story influenced by the dynamic push-pull relationship between Mills and his mother. “I didn’t want a therapy session,” he explained. “I wanted a story that I could share.”
Sprinkling the main plot of 20th Century Women are scenes drawn from Mills’ real-life anecdotes such as the “menstrual pride” dinner party speech, taken from a story shared by Mills’ wife Miranda July. Such scenes, as Mills’ explains, “breathe life” into a fictional plot.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is how intimately rich the characters were, particularly the three female protagonists. In an exclusive feature with The Cut, Mills attributes the film’s organic, feminine perspective to his role as a male in a “makeshift family” of women. “The feminism in the film,” declares Mills, “comes from being a son, a little brother, and wanting to talk about the women I love in my life.”
Mills also thanks his actresses for the authenticity of the film. However, the actresses themselves testify Mills’ contributions made the heart and soul of the movie.
“The thing about Mills, is he’s a real feminist,” claims Gerwig. “A lot of men are in theory, but it was in the water for him when he was being brought up. And instead of relying on his memories, he went back and interviewed a lot of women he knew about that time in their lives, to make sure it felt right. He wanted to put himself in the place of not knowing. Which is rare for anyone, much less a male writer-director.”
20th Century Women has won a decent handful of awards and was nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture. The movie’s successful reception by both audience and critics alike reinforces Mills’ original goals in creating an organic film with a strong, authentic female voice. Some viewers can’t believe the movie was created by man. But, Mills contributes his movie’s success to keeping in touch with his beginnings as an only son surrounded by female role models.
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