20th Century Women might feel a bit larger than life, especially in 2016. The new movie from director Mike Mills takes place in 1979 Montecito, California — a far cry from the gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines true stories audiences are used to. And yet, the story, about a single mother, Dorothea, trying to raise her teenage son, Jamie, while also exploring her own self. In doing so, Dorothea bonds with two younger women, Julie and Abbie, and the film also follows their own journeys of self discovery. With such realistic themes, is 20th Century Women a true story?
Like Mills' previous film, Beginners, 20th Century Women is inspired by his own life and his relationship with his mother. Though far from a true story, 20th Century Women was born out of Mills' desire to make a film about his mother, who died in 1999. In an interview with Elle, Mills described the film as "a love letter to all the women who raised me." Though the director essentially put a fictional version of himself in the center of the film (Jamie), he didn't set out to make a movie about himself, but the women who shaped him — in the film represented by the mother Dorothea, the young woman tenant Abbie, and the friend Julie.
20th Century Women isn't a direct telling of a true story, but Mills worked hard to ensure that his portrayal of womanhood was as accurate as possible by interviewing female friends and family members. "As a heterosexual, cisgender guy talking about women, I was very worried and wanted to find where my limitations were and sort of make them part of the piece," Mills explained in an interview with NPR.
The character of Abbie, for example, was loosely based on Mills' own sister (though Abbie and Jamie are not related in the film). And to ensure as authentic a performance as possible, Mills actually set up meetings between his sister and Greta Gerwig, who plays Abbie in the film, a process that ended up being crucial to the character. "They talked in a different way than we talked," Mills noted in an interview with IndieWire. "It was so exciting when she [Gerwig] reported back to me. I had her paraphrase it and said, 'roll camera,' as she told me that conversation." The end result of 20th Century Women is definitely worth seeing.