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'20th Century Women' reflects how filmmaker Mike Mills was raised in a matriarchy

A scene from Mike Mills'
A scene from Mike Mills' "20th Century Women."
Merrick Morton

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“20th Century Women,” is a new movie that takes us back to Santa Barbara in 1979.

At the time, Jimmy Carter was president, the Talking Heads and Black Flag represented different sides of the music scenes, the feminist movement was in full bloom, and 13-year-old Mike Mills was being raised by a mother who defied convention. His film is very much a tribute to her. But also to his sisters, his female friends, and his wife, Miranda July.

The son in “20th Century Women” is played by Lucas Jade Zumann and the mom, Dorothea, is played by Annette Bening. Early on in the film she turns to two younger women, played by Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, to help guide her son through his teenage years.

When The Frame’s host John Horn spoke with the filmmaker, they started by talking about why Jimmy Carter was an influential figure during Mills' childhood.

Interview Highlights:

On Jimmy Carter's Crisis of Confidence speech:

The way he talks about the vulnerability of the American soul, the way he talks about the collapse of things we believe in — it's just so illegal for a president to say in this day-and-age and yet so necessary and accurate. 

I remember Carter vividly because my mother loved him, because he was the peanut farmer president [who] wore jeans in the White House. My mother, who this film is based on in many ways, is such a lover of the underdog and just anything unpretentious, anything slightly socialist, anything that's undermining pomp. He was big in my mind. That particular speech I remember more from my American history class than my lived experience. In doing the research for the script, when I found it, it's what made me put the film in 1979 because I could talk about my characters, I could talk about this perfect way to describe the crisis moment that was happening right then in our shared history.

On how Annette Bening's character is like his mom:

[My mom was] born in the 20s. She grew up in the Depression. She was 16 when WWII started. She wanted to become a pilot in WWII.  She had a kid late in life, which in the '60s didn't happen. My mom was 40 when she had me in 1966, and there were no other moms like that. She looked a little bit like Amelia Earhart and smoked and drank like Humphrey Bogart and wisecracked like film heroines from a 1930s film. She just did not fit into the Santa Barbara mold. And in some ways that divide between pre-WWII life and the '70s — it's epic. It's so huge. The cultures that me and my mom formed ourselves in are unknowing of each other. 

A scene from Mike Mills'
A scene from Mike Mills' "20th Century Women."

On how "Beginners" and "20th Century Women" aren't therapy:

I come to these films after doing a lot of therapy with my wife and my sisters and all the people close to me. This stuff has been processed. I'm not doing therapy in the making of the film. It's kind of the result of a lot of self examination. Christopher Palmer [in "Beginners"] is not my dad and Annette Bening is not my mom. There are moments when I watch the film where I do feel like there was a very accurate energetic portal opened up where it was like, You do remind me of her a bit! Not for any obvious reasons. Not by looks or gestures or any mimicry, but more a kind of psychic connection.

On growing up in a matriarchy:

I have a very strong mom and two older sisters that are 10 and seven years older. I have a dad [who's] around, unlike in the film. And my dad's a very sweet, great man. But maybe it's because of when he was born in the '20s, maybe it's because he was a closeted gay gentleman, he just wasn't very present. He wasn't really emotionally present. I never really had real conversations with him about my life and my struggles. It was the women who tried in my life. Then, for whatever reason, I've always sort of gravitated toward women. My best man at my wedding was a woman. I feel more at home in some ways. I think in my childhood, women are the people who really tried with me.

A scene from Mike Mills'
A scene from Mike Mills' "20th Century Women."

On how his mother was a model of an adult who defied categorization:

My mom was like a contractor and sort of a frustrated architect. She was an incredibly hard working person. My mom didn't [appear] particularly feminine and she looked pretty butch. She walked and talked not like a woman in lots of ways. She didn't really identify a lot with gender and that was the unspoken landscape of my childhood with her. I watched her struggles a lot, and her loves and passions a lot. That was the bubble in which I grew up. That was my main model, not just as my mom but as a maker-person. 

How Miranda July inspired Greta Gerwig's rant about menstruation: 

I'm married to a very strong feminist and strong woman, Miranda July. In that scene, she's explaining to this young man how important it is to be able to be comfortable with the idea of menstruation and to speak of it as if there's nothing shameful. That's something that Miranda did with her older brother in her real life ... That scene just came really naturally to me.

A scene from Mike Mills'
A scene from Mike Mills' "20th Century Women."

On how he sees his mother in himself as a filmmaker and as a parent:

I'm incredibly practical. I finish every day on time. I'm always under budget. I am sort of a Depression-era person. She really loved hardworking people and I adore my film crew. I protect them and I'm their number one advocate, I hope. I'm also not easy on them, but I'm hard working, salt of the earth. Human, hands-on effort is something that, in my family and in my mother's value system, is the most important and honorable thing. 

My mom's been gone since 1999 and I often miss her in the presence of my son. My mom was funny. I hope I'm funny with my son. My mom was very empowering. She really believed that you have to go out and get in the jungle and figure out yourself. I haven't gotten that far with my son yet, but I hope to have some of that in me.  

"20th Century Women" arrives in theaters on Dec. 28. To hear more conversations like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.

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