As an independent film and lit junkie, I will be the first to rattle on about the exciting crossovers between books and cinema. That said, some directors do a better job than others of capturing narratives and developing characters in the same complex way that literature does. Enter, Mike Mills. Seriously, this man’s ability to meld autobiography, history and fiction into a seamless work of art will make skeptics sing his praises (ask my uncle). I would marry him were he not already married to another one of my favorite writers, Miranda July (can I ask to be their step-child)?
I was first introduced to Mike Mills through his film Beginners (2011), which is on Netflix right now (go watch it). Beginners, a semi-autobiographical work, traces two stories: the story of a struggling artist falling in love, and the story of a relationship between a dying father and son after the father comes out as gay. Mills’ own father came out as gay late in his life, and Mills saw this film as a way to better understand his father and to come to terms with his parents’ decision to marry. Like all good Indie movies, Beginners searches for intimate moments that capture both the difficultly of love and the promise of starting anew at any age. Oh, and there’s a dog that talks.
When I heard that Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women (2016), was generating Oscar buzz, I was thrilled. Rarely do Indie movies make it into the mainstream Hollywood scene, but Mills deserves it. Like Beginners, 20th Century Women is also autobiographical, but this time he paints a portrait of his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), in a coming of age story set in 1979 in California. When Dorothea decides that young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) needs the advice of young women to “help him become a man,” a funny, touching and occasionally gut-wrenching story ensures. The difficulty in knowing one’s parents, womanhood and feminism all feature alongside other fascinating characters played by Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and Bill Crudup.
Now that Mike Mills has been catapulted onto the stage of mainstream Hollywood, I’m worried that his films will lose their credence and down-home charm. Part of what makes them so great is their loyalty to the small moments and interactions that make us who we are. They find the beauty and pain and never pretend to make ends need in the cloying way that these kind of slow movies sometimes do. In each of his works, one can see the touch of a artist trying to work through the material of his own life and, in doing so, discovering of stories that intimately connect us.
Written by Sophie N.