Imperfect Mortal Beings

On Mike Mills' Beginners and 20th Century Women

20th Century Women | A24
20th Century Women (2016) | A24

There’s an alchemy that happens whenever a parent and child are in a room together. Projections and layers of memories and assumptions cloud any ability to truly see the other1. A parent will never not be a parent; a child will never not be a child. The present can’t erase disagreements or secrets or pet peeves, can’t erase all of the wants and needs and disappointments.

Toward the end of 20th Century Women, Dorothea (Annette Bening) has just been told secondhand about the night her teenage son spent drinking and moshing and kissing. There’s something crestfallen in her expression, but when she’s asked if she’s angry, she says she isn’t. She explains, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” 

Writer/director Mike Mills explores this truth in his films Beginners, from 2010, and 20th Century Women, in 2016. The former is inspired by his relationship with his father, who came out as gay only a few years before passing away; the latter is inspired by his teenage years with an enigmatic older mother. Both are deeply personal and generous stories, and both acknowledge how impossible the attempt to know one’s parent or child can be.

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Beginners is a film that manages to mythologize a father, while also leaning into his humanity and honoring the messy, sometimes faulty ways he built a life.

When 70-something Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), it slants everything Oliver thought he understood about his father. His parents’ marriage, his father’s upbringing, all of it takes on a new shade, as does their own relationship. Hal throws himself into this new life with a youthful energy. Everything is novel and exciting.

Oliver watches his father’s eagerness warily, not wanting him to get hurt in the reckless, full-hearted way a teenager might, especially since he’s concurrently battling cancer. 

Hal starts seeing Andy (Goran Visnjic), a man whose love is ample and erratic. He brings Hal presents; he drops a caterpillar on Hal’s tea saucer and leaves to meet up with another man; he defends his right to be in the hospital room with Hal; he accuses Oliver of being uncomfortable around him. Watching them together is an uneasy role reversal for Oliver. He worries that Andy isn’t loving Hal in the way Oliver wants Hal to be loved, a heartbreaking and fragile fear. 

Beginners (2010) | Focus Features
Beginners (2010) | Focus Features

This story threads through Beginners alongside a later timeline––one where a mourning Oliver meets a charming actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent)––giving us the contrast between Hal throwing himself full-hearted and headlong toward love and Oliver holding himself back, afraid of what letting himself love and be loved might mean. Because he watched his parents negotiate a life of compromises and half-truths, he knows he doesn’t want that for himself, but worries that it might be inevitable.

Throughout the film, Hal gives Oliver advice on love. Hal insists that there’s a wisdom to settling for a giraffe, even if you’ve spent your life dreaming of a lion. He thinks Oliver should put out a personal ad2 to meet someone. In the hospital, he asks why Oliver doesn’t marry the nurse. Oliver’s responses are levelheaded—he’d rather wait for a lion, he’s not going to put out a personal ad, and he’s not going to marry the nurse because he barely knows her. What Oliver is missing, though, is Hal’s worry about what will happen once he’s gone. Sure, love might hurt, but isn’t it worth it to feel something, to have someone beside you, to have tried, no matter where that trying leaves you?

This is at the center of Beginners: the active tenacity it takes to let someone in; the willingness to be hurt again in the wake of a separate and much larger hurt; the search for someone who speaks the same emotional language as you, no matter how sure you are that that person can’t possibly exist. 

Somehow, though, Oliver seems to find it. He meets Anna at a Halloween party; he’s dressed as Freud and she’s dressed as Julius Rosenberg. Their lives don’t quite make sense alongside each other, but still, they allow themselves to get swept up. They roller skate through her hotel hallway, they sprint across highway overhangs, they tell each other stories and fall asleep and wake up the next morning and do it all over again. It’s an impermanent honeymoon, but even inside of it, Oliver can see it as a gift––“Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness that our parents didn’t have time for and a happiness that I never saw with them.”

For Oliver, the act of falling in love becomes an act of understanding his father better, even after he’s gone. Maybe, finally, he can take some of his father’s hard-earned advice3. The movie ends on an inhale. Oliver and Anna aren’t used to staying in a relationship, but for now, they’ve chosen to. They don’t trust that it will work, but they’ll explore the unknowns together. They’ll try.

Beginners (2010) | Focus Features

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Watching Beginners reminded me of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, written after the death of her husband. The comparison didn’t come to mind just because of this liminal space on the other side of loss, but also because the act of creating something out of that loss is its own type of magic. Didion did this with her memoir, just as Mills did with these films:

We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

There’s something lovely about Mills creating Beginners after his father passed. He’d already lost his mother a decade earlier, and so with his dad’s passing, he’d lost any of that room-changing alchemy. But by making Beginners, Mills was able to find it again. He sat with his father and tried to understand. Coupling Beginners and 20th Century Women together shows us Mills’ attempts. They’re phenomenal films. Honest and even-handed and not afraid to show his parents’ sharp edges, not afraid to show them how they were—imperfect mortal beings.

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If Beginners is a lesson about love, then 20th Century Women is a lesson in listening. 

The film takes place in 1979, in a Santa Barbara home where teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, the Mills stand-in) lives with his mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a woman who elides any attempt at definition. She’s free-spirited and loving, but prickles when others ask about her inner life. She wants to offer everything, but also wants to impose limits on what that everything might mean. In one moment, she tells Jamie, “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world,” and in the next, after he asks her if she’s happy, she snaps, “You don’t ask people questions like that.”

20th Century Women | A24

Dorothea and Jamie stand as two poles in a film fascinated with the collision of generations. Dorothea’s childhood was characterized by the Depression and World War II4, Jamie’s by a meaningless war and the luxury of boredom. Dorothea insists on Jamie’s autonomy. At the bank, she pressures the clerk into giving him an account, even though he’s too young. After the school principal says Jamie needs a legitimate excuse in order to miss class, she writes him notes, excusing him because he’d been volunteering with the Sandinistas or was involved in a minor plane accident.5

It’s a freedom that Dorothea hadn’t had growing up, one she feels is important to give, but Jamie doesn’t necessarily understand it as a gift. After he accidentally passes out while playing a fainting game at the skatepark, Dorothea pulls in their 20-something boarder, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), for help raising him. When they push back, not sure exactly what she’s asking, she responds, “How do you be a good man? What does that even mean nowadays? He’s only got me. It’s not enough.”

At first, Abbie and Julie don’t know what to do with the ask and Jamie resents his mom turning to them without consulting him first. But eventually he realizes that he wants to listen and they realize how much they have to share. Abbie gives him a stack of feminist texts. He reads essays about the clitoris and aging and desire. Julie shows him how to properly hold a cigarette while smoking and insists on the importance of strength over every other quality. 

These aren’t lessons given in a vacuum. Abbie wants Jamie to get out of Santa Barbara because she hasn’t managed to. Julie’s mother is a therapist and has insisted on including Julia in group sessions; in response, Julie has become both prescriptive and compartmentalized. These three women are all at distinctly different points in their lives—a mother and divorcée, a 20-something who’s already fought cancer and now faces the specter of infertility, a teenage girl both sexually active and uninterested in love6. Jamie is there for each of them through these trials, and in being there, learns how to listen. He also learns how sometimes comforting means offering a distraction, and other times it simply means being present in silent support.

20th Century Women | A24

The biggest lesson Jamie learns, though, is how to be open—and how, sometimes, that openness requires a generosity toward the woman who raised you, allowing her to exist both as your mom and also as a woman living in the world with wants and needs and fears and secrets. If Dorothea insists on Jamie being his own person, then Jamie has to insist on Dorothea being her own person, too. 

Dorothea and Jamie spend much of 20th Century Women at odds, but there’s a moment near the end where they settle into a rare and temporary truce. She helps him bleach his hair. He skateboards alongside her car, grasping at the lowered driver’s side window.  The moment won’t last. Understanding each other will once again become the exception, not the rule. But for now, they meet on this common ground, simply enjoying the knowledge that the other is experiencing the moment just as they’re experiencing it––the chill in the coastal air, the burn of bleach on his scalp and her fingers, the pump of the music as they dance and laugh in their hotel room. Moments of meeting. Small, but important.

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By creating these two films, Mike Mills managed to both ask and answer the question of communicating across divides of generation and identity.

Neither film turns away from the difficult parts of his parents, the things they hid, the lies they told, the harsh truths they confessed. But the films also allow their author7 the respite of looking at his parents as they actually were, not as they wanted to be seen or how he insisted on seeing them at the time. These films gave Mills a chance to step back into a moment, to re-experience it, and to give his parents the sense of grace that can be found in honesty8.

Toward the end of Beginners, over a Dorothea Lange photo of an extended hand clutching a bunch of daisies, Oliver says, “When I was a kid, I thought that was my arm giving her daisies. Now I make a new mistake and think it’s her arm giving me the daisies, saying, here, here’s simple and happy. That’s what I meant to give you.”

Perhaps, then, this is what’s most important: not what was successful, but what was hazarded and what was heard.