Greta Gerwig and Mike Mills on the Matriarchal World of 20th Century Women

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“I hope I’m a good ally to women. Whether I’m a feminist is for women to decide.” Writer-director Mike Mills.

“A lot of men might say they’re feminists, but Mike truly is a feminist.” These are words of Greta Gerwig, about her 20th Century Women writer-director Mike Mills.

The prolific actress and filmmaker (who just wrapped her directorial debut Lady Bird starring Saoirse Ronan) has been having a great year with several of her films ‐ Todd Solondz’ Wiener-Dog, Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan and Pablo Larrain’s Jackie ‐ opening back to back and earning critical acclaim. And the last of them is Mills’ third narrative feature: a profoundly personal project about his eccentric, remarkable single mother and his Southern California upbringing amid a group of unconventional women in 1979. 20th Century Women is indeed charged with genuine feminist ideals. So much that it takes one by surprise how well Mills seems to grasp womanhood and the female experience in general.

Joining me on the phone one early morning before she heads over to NBC’s Today Show, Gerwig says Mills at his core is a listener and he started this film from a place of being a listener. “He was raised by women basically. But he didn’t make any assumptions and he interviewed them all. It’s why the film feels like it’s about real women, and not about imagined projections of women by a man, which is what it usually feels like.”

Gerwig plays Abbie, a free-spirited artist, a resilient cervical cancer survivor and a tenant of Dorothea (Annette Bening), who turns to her and Julie (Elle Fanning) to help raise her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). We are in the Carter-era with 20th Century Women (with Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech used in a critical scene.) This is before Ronald Reagan, after the Vietnam War and during the mainstream takeover of punk rock. The house the aforementioned unlikely bunch lives in goes through a never-ending renovation, the conversations are wisdom-filled and politics are free flowing in everyone’s veins. Their world seems chaotic, but in a way that is strangely loose and soothing, and unexpectedly rejuvenating.

While Gerwig compliments Mills in his feminism, she is specifically talking about a key scene in the film. It’s a centerpiece of sorts, where she leads a dinner table conversation, trying to make everyone ‐ male and female ‐ get comfortable with saying menstruation. “The scene was written in about menstruation being a word that men should be able to say,” states Gerwig. “I remember when we were shooting that scene, Mike told me all the women in his life told him that having their period is a very deep creative time for them and he was always jealous that he didn’t have a period. I thought [he was] special in that way.”

20th Century Women Review: An Exquisite Tale of Mother and Son

Later that afternoon during an earnest face-to-face conversation, I relay Gerwig’s complimentary words to Mills, who is visibly delighted to hear her high opinion of him. He reinforces that he was raised in a matriarchy with a strong mother figure and his two older sisters. But when he’s asked whether he would call himself a true feminist, he pauses and stresses that it’s not really his place to say. “Well, I’m a male ally to women. A feminist? That’s something for women to decide [whether I am],” Mills explains. “That’s a really high compliment from Greta. The only thing I could say is, I hope I’m a good ally. I totally think patriarchy sucks for women and men. All my allies, the people who helped me, the people that taught me everything, kind of like in this movie, were women. They told me a lot about their lives, so I knew a lot about their struggles from early on. My mom [once] wanted to get a loan from a bank. They wouldn’t let her because she wasn’t a man, even though she made all the money.”

20th Century Women is the second time Mills tackles a narrative feature about a parent. His delicate sophomore film Beginners was about his father, who came out as gay late in life and was generally absent from Mills’ life. So this time, it’s perhaps even a bit more personal for Mills. He approached everything from a deeply personal lens: brought in his parents’ furniture, objects, pictures and even his mom’s bedspread to the movie. They put some of his mom’s real-life accessories (like her bracelets) on Bening. “There’s got to be some magic involved in the chair that my mom actually sat in, and on the bedspread that my mom laid on, and Annette laying on it. Dorothea is my mom, so it’s my memories. She was a very secretive person and didn’t want you to know about her inner life; it was very frustrating to me. She’s a 30s kid, so I started researching everything I could about depression-era stuff and [pulled from] what I knew.”

Mills also dived into films from the 30s as part of his research; particularly those lead by women. “Stage Door (Gregory La Cava) has an all-female cast [for instance.] Women back then were given a lot more room in films, they had great dialogue, and they’re very subversive and not always male dependent. Their dialogue really helped me. Also, my mom was kind of butch. She wanted to be a pilot in World War II. Typical ideas of femininity don’t give you access to my mother, so Humphrey Bogart really was the best insight into my mom. Annette Bening really has strength and specificity; she does it on her own terms. I was trying hard to write a character that had contradictory qualities and Annette had the sensitivity and depth to not flatten that out. When we first met, she was really interested in the paradoxes of the character and didn’t treat it as a mistake. And they’re both Geminis. That’s actually incredibly important to me.”

Mills adds that Gerwig’s character is based on his sister Meg, who basically went through the struggles Abbie does in the film and whom he interviewed thoroughly. Like Abbie, Mills’ sister moved to New York in her youth, found her sexuality, art and music. And she fought cervical cancer. “I [also] had Greta interview Meg, because I thought ‘woman-to-woman.’ And I’m Meg’s little brother so she’s not going to tell me everything,” he stipulates. “Lo and behold: they talked about sex and they talked about what it means to have cervical cancer and what it does to your vagina. There’s a scene where Abbie wears this pink top and says, ‘I learned how to like my body and I learned how to make men excited and I was so angry and I was so happy.’ That’s Greta interviewing my sister.” And because Mills knew Gerwig is a great writer, he asked her to just write her version of what Meg said.

Gerwig, who always wanted to work with Mike Mills, states she felt protective of Abbie when she first read the script. If she wants to take care of a character, that’s a strong sign for Gerwig that she would like to play the part. She recalls she had a luxurious five-month period to prepare, during which she did her homework: read art books and feminist literature of the time, listened to the era’s music and so on. And of course, she spent a lot of time with Meg. “Mike never told me that I was literally playing her, but that she would be the inspiration. I talked to her a lot about her life in Santa Barbara, and her life in New York and what getting cervical cancer at that moment was like. Her story was Abbie’s story. Her mother had taken DES [birth control type] and it gave the daughters the possibility to get cervical cancer. In 1 week, she went from being a young person in New York, making art with her whole life ahead of her to moving back home to Santa Barbara to start undergoing cancer treatment.” Having gone through the 90s generation and experienced the solidarity of cancer survivors in society (and witnessed campaigns like “Livestrong”), Gerwig says she didn’t realize how hush-hush cancer was in the 70s. “You didn’t talk about it and your family didn’t talk about it. There was almost a sense that there was something wrong with you. It was shameful and I hadn’t realized that. I didn’t grow up in that world. I’m kind of wrapping my head around what that would have been like.” Gerwig says she was sad to let Abbie go after 20th Century Women wrapped, as she affected her so much. “It’s a very mysterious thing. A little corner of your heart is still that character. I don’t think it ever leaves you. I think it kind of changes you inevitably.”

In 20th Century Women, Mills grapples with the passage of time philosophically and conveys its inevitable nature creatively through various editing decisions. He jumps forward in time, goes backwards, speeds up the details of a character’s journey and slows it down again once he locks the viewer into a melancholic, almost dizzy state around the many complexities of aging. He then makes one ask the inevitable question: how well do we know one and another in our families, when we don’t get to see each other out in the real world? He says he loves and was influenced by the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera), which has a similar approach to handling time. Then he counts his French New Wave influences like Hiroshima Mon Amour, My Life to Live and Shoot the Piano Player with unconventional structures. But ultimately, real-life experiences are where he found his structural core.

“I did Beginners right before this last film and people are going to think, “Oh, you know, it’s all about your dad.” My parents, people born in the 20s, they don’t talk about their inner life. They don’t talk about their wounds or their traumas or all that. In a lot of ways, that’s the kernel of these movies: I don’t know them and, in key ways, I don’t understand them. They’re inscrutable to me, they confuse me; you know what I mean? My mom in particular is a real mysterious cat. My dad would love to have a movie made about him. My mother does not want to be pinned down.” He continues, “I have a kid now, and I’m on the other side of it. The line where [Dorothea says], “You get to see him out in the world…I dropped my kid for one of the first times at preschool and I was walking away, it’s such a weird thing to give your kid to a relative stranger. I’m walking out and there’s a fence with slits in the fence so I can see through and I’m watching him for the first time in my life not with me or my wife, and with other people. He’s chatting and he’s doing all this stuff. He’s his own person. I was, ‘Oh okay, this is the beginning of that and it’s just going to go on and on and on.’”

Inspired through his dad’s life story, Mills believes in a philosophy that our collective emotional lives are historical and informed by the times we live in. “[My dad] knew he was gay in the 30s, but he couldn’t have that love. He couldn’t have those feelings. If he did, he could be beat up, completely ostracized, given electric shock therapy or put in prison. That’s a very extreme case of that, but even in my life and looking at these women, there are definitely ways of being that are more allowed than others. Talk about all the privileges that are given to men and the disenfranchisement that’s given to women and their thoughts or their ambitions. My mom wanted to be a pilot, my mom wanted to be an architect, all things that women aren’t “supposed” to be. It was such an uphill fight to do anything that she wanted to do. That’s a passion, a hunger for freedom that drove her. That’s maybe my favorite way of looking at things: how things as mysterious and completely interior as love, or as your idea of yourself, have a line to everything that’s going on outside these windows.”

Mills ponders what effects the current political realities will have on our emotional lives, with the upcoming Trump presidency. As we talk about how his film could be viewed by two completely different set of eyes pre and post Trump, we both realize its relevancy to today is even more complicated and delicate now, with another crisis of confidence in the future staring the nation in the eye. “I included [Carter’s] speech a long time ago, long before the election, but I was finishing this film over the spring and summer, so I did take out some of those parts of the speech and put in some of the parts of the speech that spoke a little bit more to now. With the film in general, I was always trying to find linkages to now. There are so many things that are important or active in our culture right now that had a real high point then. From all the Islamic revolutions, to our relationship to the oil crises, and our relationship with Middle East oil and politics and this American disbelief that the natural resources aren’t forever…personal computer, in-vitro fertilization, Planned Parenthood…there are so many things that had a swelling moment then. As for the Carter thing, there’s trippy coincidences going from Carter to Regan, and [now] going from Obama to Trump. Though Obama to Trump is of course much worse, with a [much wider] gap.”

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.