Not too long ago, the writer and director Mike Mills lost his smartphone. Timing-wise, it was not ideal: The Los Angeles-based Mills, 50, was in New York City for the premiere of his new movie, 20th Century Women, meaning he had to spend the next few very busy days in a crowded metropolis without any easy means of navigation, information, or interaction. Sounds terrible, right?
“It was amazing,” Mills says a few months later, sitting in a Manhattan hotel on a gray December morning. “Someone would say, ‘Mike, you have an hour until your next thing.’ And I’d go out in the city and think, ‘What is an hour?’ I used to know what an hour was pretty well, just experientially. I’ve lost that skill.”
That woozy sense of timelessness–and the liberation it affords–plays a big role in 20th Century Women, a generous, free-roaming, discreetly incisive comedy-drama staring Annette Bening as Dorothea, the single-mom head of a suburban Santa Barbara boardinghouse in 1979. Dorothea’s tenants include Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), her skateboard-swerving, increasingly alien-seeming young son; William (Billy Crudup), a blue-collar wandering soul; and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-loving photographer who’s just discovered she has cervical cancer. When Dorothea finds herself falling out of touch with Jamie, she recruits Abbie and one of their neighbors–a prematurely world-weary teenager named Julie (Elle Fanning)–to help guide him through adolescence.
And that’s more or less it, story-wise. 20th Century Women isn’t dotted by knotty narrative twists or soap-operatic reveals; instead, its characters inch closer together via a series of uncertain, unhurried moments, whether it’s Dorothea and William attempting to decipher the lyrics to a Black Flag tune, or everyone gathering in the living room to watch (and absorb) Jimmy Carter’s ennui-tallying “Crisis of Confidence” speech. And even though Mills is a precise, fat-free storyteller–his early work includes breakout videos for such acts as Air and Pulp, as well as hit commercials for brands like the Gap–Women recreates the sleepy elasticity of the pre-Internet age, when the days were unplanned, and hours went by unnoticed.
“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.” It’s a period Mills understands well, as much of Women was drawn from the director’s own late-’70s childhood. Abbie is inspired by one of Mills’ older sisters, whom Gerwig interviewed before filming, and whose observations about life occasionally wound up in the script (Mills and Gerwig also devised a fictitious record-buying timeline that tracked all of Abbie’s favorite bands over her life–“an interesting self-portrait thing to do,” Mills says). And Jamie–who at one point gets pounded for daring to wear a Talking Heads t-shirt–is modeled closely upon Mills’ own experiences as a self-described “suburban California problem,” and a kid who favored new wave over hardcore, despite his peers’ objections. “There was a punk house next to my art school,” says Mills, dressed for the day in a slim black suit with a David Bowie button on the lapel, “and someone spray-painted something like, ‘Mike Mills is an art fag’ on the outside of that building.”
But the center of the film is Dorothea, based on Mills’ own mother, who had a fondness for hands-on work (she was a contractor) and a love of Jimmy Carter’s salt-of-the-earthness. As portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Bening, Dorothea is a bordering-on-boho pragmatist, dispensing casual wisdom between calm-inducing cigarette drags. (Her 20th Century Women turn inspires a pair of strong, and strongly at-odds urges: The first is to call your mother; the second is to start smoking like Annette Bening.) As part of their preparation, Mills and Bening talked about the movies his mother loved–she was a big fan of Bogart–and listened to some of her favorite music, including Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong. Still, he says, “I didn’t want to just show the good parts of her. I tried to show some of the contradictions, or the parts that disappointed me, or that I feel unresolved about.”
Mills describes his mother, who died in 1999, as “a very complicated woman who’s totally mysterious to me,” though the two were clearly close. In the years shortly before her death, Mills’ career as a multi-medium visual artist began to take off, turning him into a sort of on-call artisan for bold-faced cool-kids: He designed album covers for Sonic Youth and Air; t-shirts for the Beastie Boys and the skateboarder-beloved designers Supreme; and graphics for Kim Gordon’s X-Girl brand. But Mills’ mother didn’t finally feel secure about her son’s success until, following a few hit commercials, he finally had enough money to buy his own house. “For a while, I was begging to do music videos for free,” Mills says. “So she was very psyched. She was a Depression-era person, so there was nothing I could do to impress my mother more than to put 25 percent down on a house. She even came to the house and did the contractor’s inspection. We later discovered that, at the time, she had a tumor in her head. She was a tough-as-nails person.”
Women isn’t the first time Mills has documented his parents’ lives on screen: His last film, 2011’s Beginners, was based on Mills’ father, who came out to his family when he was 75, after decades of marriage; the movie earned Christopher Plummer an Oscar. “If you’re doing something personal, you have to burn it,” Mills says. “You can’t get precious about it. You have to give them the keys to the car, because you need the actor to feel full authorship. You need to infect them.” It was while doing the promotional rounds for Beginners that Mills began writing 20th Century Women, spending the next few years working on the script, while also directing commercials for Facebook and Cisco, and creating a montage of circa-1979 magazine imagery for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (in between films, he also had his first child with his wife, the artist and writer Miranda July).
“My films take so long, so I practice with other projects along the way,” says Mills, who’s still trying to figure out what he’ll do after Women‘s nearly five-year-long journey. “I have some gaseous ideas, but to be honest, I still don’t know what this film is,” he says, staring out the window, where the morning-commute midtown traffic plays out quietly below. “I don’t know what it means to people, how it’s going down, what the deal is.” Sounds like he could use a phone-free hour to figure it all out.