Apparently, there is a trend in Mike Mills` films with a plot taking roots from his own childhood. His first film Beginners based on Mills’ father, who came out to his family when he was 75, is no followed by a “loveletter” to the women who raised him – 20th Century Women.


Trying to reveal a mystery

The center of the film is Dorothea, based on Mills’ mother.   “It felt like I was raised by my mom and sisters, so I was always appealing to women in the punk scene or women in my world. I always leaned to them to figure out my life as a straight white guy,” he says. “So I wanted to make a movie about that.” Though his mother has always been an enigma. “My mom never fit in the feminine box—she just didn’t fit in. She wanted to be a pilot. She was a drafter. She never wanted to look like a feminine woman,” Mills says. “But the key parts to her interior life, especially the key parts to her history, her story of herself, she never told me—they remain a mystery to me.”

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Although, his mother is an apparent prototype of Dorothea, the film is not just  retelling. “Let’s say if I had a documentary film about [my parents] and filmed them all through my life to now. If you put that together as a movie, once you edit it, once you make it all those editorial decisions, you don’t have a documentary anymore,”  Mills says. “It’d be your version, this one particular construct, one particular view of them. So even if you have all the facts, you’re cinematizing reality—and I like that. I like that mixture of trying to get to the heart of a person but turning it into cinema. It becomes something that’s very hard to describe, like some mongrel hybrid thing which actually feels more true.”


Roots to childhood

According to the plot, Dorothea is a free-thinking woman living in southern California in 1979. As she discovers herself falling out of touch with her adolescent son Jamie, she employs her tenant Abbie  and Jaime’s best friend Julie to guide and edify him.

The film is quite adept at weaving authenticity and atmosphere of the era. The point is that Mills understands well this period when he himself was a child. “It was interesting trying to teach the kids [in the cast] about 1979,” says Mills. “About the lack of connectivity; about the amount of boredom that was expected; and about how the acceptance of boredom creates opportunity.”

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He also grew up with his mother`s favourite records of Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong. And she was fond of  Humphrey  Bogart. “I knew that she loved all those Bogie movies, so I started watching movies from the ’30s and ’40s,” explains Mills. “There’s a great one called Stage Door—the female characters totally reminded me of my mom. They’re anti-authoritarian. They love the underdog. They hate pretension. They are all struggling against the powers of society and they’re not going to win the struggle but they’re going down with great style. But in a weird way what came out the most is Bogart—that was one little piece of magical access to my mom. Who knew Humphrey Bogart would help me with my mom’s dialogue?”

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To share or not to share?

It is surprising that Mills decided to tell his mother`s story. “I’m not a woman. I’m not a mother. I’m not as old as she was. I’m not from her time, – he says.” But it was the right thing to do. As he tells: “When your parents die, they’re very alive in your head and you can have very real conversations with them. My mom was a very secretive person and she wouldn’t generally want to have movies made about her. But the film is a public document … It’s not a piece of therapy or a personal thing—it’s a movie. My mom’s memories gave me this opportunity—to be a writer/director is a huge gift. And ultimately I think my mom would’ve let me do this.” And it is, indeed, a right story to watch.

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