Screenplay by Mike Mills
20th Century Women is very much a love letter to writer-director Mike Mills’ mother, the same way his film Beginners is a love letter to his father. But at its core, the movie is about a mother’s struggle to raise her son on her own, trying to craft the ideal version of a man -- with the help of two other women. And as the below snippet of conversation from the script illustrates, the help of these two other women has consequences.
What was the fight about?
TONE AND GENRE
The opening pages confirm right off the bat that this is hardly a conventional movie, as we begin with dueling voice-overs, trading off between DOROTHEA and her son, JAMIE, which carry over visuals of Jamie as a baby, as well as stock images and footage corresponding with the words of the V.O. Tonewise, there’s humor present in these first set of pages. The humor is of the low-key, quirky variety, as we see when Dorothea laments the death of their Ford Galaxy. (DORTHEA: That was a beautiful car. JAMIE: Mom, it smelled like gas and overheated all the time…) The low-key style is important as it tells us what we’re getting into: this isn’t necessarily a laugh-out-loud comedy; there will be some drama here.
The script is very character-driven. And being as unconventional as it is on the surface, it seems difficult to initially define who the protagonist is, as not only do we have characters alternating voice-overs, but the overall narrative drive is loose and very slice-of-life. It’s not really focused on a set goal the same way a more conventional movie would be. (More on this later.) Dorothea eventually reveals herself to be our protagonist and her introduction reveals what is key about her: for her, everything is tied back to her son.
EXT. SANTA BARBARA - VONS PARKING LOT - DAY
WIDE ON a plume of black smoke rising high into the air. CLOSER ON a 1965 Ford Galaxy engulfed in flames.
DOROTHEA (55, short grey hair, Amelia Earhart androgyny) and JAMIE (15, New-Wave/Punk) jog their shopping cart toward the commotion, stunned to find their car in flames. Dorothea looks at the car and then at her son Jamie, concerned. People run for help. Sirens in the background.
That was my husband’s Ford Galaxy. We drove Jamie home from the hospital in that car.
The burning of the car doesn’t initially trigger worry for Dorothea about how they’re going to get home or if any bystanders were hurt, but rather it triggers a memory of how the car relates to Jamie. Clearly, this boy is her life. Jamie is introduced simultaneously, but as he doesn’t drive the action of the overall plot the way Dorothea does, he’s not really a “co-protagonist” -- if we want to call it that. We don’t necessarily get much of a sense of how these two characters support or challenge each other until page 3, after the subsequent voice overs and background information is finished. On page 3, Dorothea and Jamie have to interact with the firemen who just doused their car and this allows them the opportunity to naturally showcase their relationship.
Dorothea goes to touch his hair. He bends away from her hand. Jamie turns to his mom, trying to explain the contemporary world to her.
You know, when the firemen come, people don’t usually invite them over for dinner.
Camera tracks away, revealing them like refugees in the parking lot.
Yeah? Why not?
Dorothea’s dinner invitation to the firemen allows the script to introduce us to the other prominent characters of the script, who all spend most of their time at Dorothea and Jamie’s house: Jamie’s best friend (and girl he pines for) JULIE, who is seemingly always at the house to escape her own family; and ABBIE and WILLIAM, both of whom live in the house with Dorothea and Jamie as renters. Without having to spell it out, the script informs us that these characters are important because we first encounter them without the presence of Jamie or Dorothea. More so than Jamie, Abbie and Julie act as almost “co-protagonists”, assisting Dorothea on her quest to raise Jamie. And as we first meet both women, snippets of their personality are revealed -- the aspects that will eventually rub off on Jamie.
INT. MARY’S THERAPY PLACE - DAY
Camera pans across teen therapy girl (IMPROVISE THERAPY TALK), sees a circle of 6 other teen girls having therapy, lands on JULIE (17, Something subversive below her good looks) similarly bored. The therapist MARY, (40’s academic) listens. Julie stares at Mary, criticality brewing inside of her.
EXT. OUTSIDE MARY’S OFFICE
Julie lights up a cigarette, her real self, gets on her bike.
EXT. MONTECITO STREETS - DAY
Julie smokes and rides her bike, her real self more on view.
The script is clearly proving that Julie has two versions of herself -- and, with the help of a cigarette, we learn what her “real” self is. Meeting her like this, we know who she is before we see Jamie and her together; we have an idea of how they’ll contrast. Abbie’s introduction immediately follows:
INT. OBGYN OFFICE
ABBIE (28, Sophisticated NYC art-punk type) stands in gown in OBGYN office, looking confused, vulnerable, but armed with a late 70’s clunky Nikon camera. She studies her doctor putting a swab into a tube, writing her name; she takes a photograph.
Turns and takes a photo of the room, her doctor is used to this.
She watches an assistant come in and take the swab (and her future fate) in its plastic container away - go down the hall, and disappear around a corner.
INT. HOSPITAL HALLWAY
The technician carries the little swab down the hall, in a clear plastic bag.
INT. DOROTHEA’S SIDE DOOR
Abbie walks in, looking lost, puts her bag down in the kitchen.
INT. ABBIE’S ROOM
Now in her room, Talking Heads playing loudly, her pain peaks and she begins to dance alone.
Abbie’s introduction is similar to Julie’s in that, by the end of their respective introductions, we are privy to a more honest version of them, a side they only reveal when they think no one else is watching. We also learn that Abbie has some serious issues on her plate because we first meet her in a hospital, doing tests. But, when it comes to Abbie in relation to Jamie, it’s the final moment that’s most important: lost and alone in her room, dancing to Talking Heads. This is something she’ll later teach him to do, something he’ll turn to as he struggles to learn who he is as a person.
WORLD OF THE STORY
The aforementioned house is the primary setting, with much of the action occurring in or around it. The script cleverly devotes its opening pages to Dorothea’s birthday party, which provides an organic way to get all of the characters together in the primary world of the story: the house.
INT. DOROTHEA’S DINING ROOM - NIGHT
Her party’s in full swing. An eclectic mix of people. 15 plus the regulars; construction guys, straight looking drafting men, a few women Dorothea’s age, and 4 firemen from before.
People are all talking and drinking, eating and moving around the room. WE CROSS BETWEEN MANY SHORT INTERWOVEN MOMENTS WITHIN THE PARTY. CAMERA MOVES WITH Dorothea showing the FIRE CHIEF a little of the house. William silently glides with them.
The scene even allows Dorthea to provide a little backstory on this world that we’ll come to know so well by the end of the script because of the presence of strangers -- using exposition with them doesn’t seem awkward or unusual.
The script has also told us numerous times that we are in Santa Barbara, in the year 1979 -- in fact, these are the first lines of the first page: ___________________________________________________________
EXT. OCEAN - DAY
High overhead shot looking down on the Pacific Ocean.
TITLE: SANTA BARBARA, 1979.
But even if the script didn’t go so far as to explicitly detail a title card with the location and time period, it provides many clues as to what period we’re in due to culture: Abbie dancing to Talking Heads, the visuals accompanying the voice-overs, character appearance (Abbie is described as NYC art-punk type), etc.
If the unconventional opening tells us anything, we can assume that there’ll be an unconventional dramatic situation, as well. Indeed, there isn’t really a set goal or journey in the conventional sense (as touched on earlier). Sure, Dorothea’s quest to raise Jamie is the foundation for everything, and you could argue that when she enlists Abbie and Julie to help her with raising Jamie (which occurs on page 22) we have our core goal.
But in these first ten pages, being the character-driven script that it is, we focus on character-specific dramatic situations.
Dorothea pulls Abbie aside, looks at her, Abbie doesn’t want to share.
So, what happened?
They never tell you anything, I won’t know for like a week.
Dorothea gives her an encouraging look.
I’m gonna be late on rent.
That’s okay, Don’t worry about that.
Abbie looks at Dorothea with love and admiration.
Here we get more insight into Abbie’s issue/dramatic situation. We don’t know all of the details yet, but we know that she’s visited the hospital, had tests done, and is anxiously waiting. This is what is occupying her; this is what is driving her story.
INT. JAMIE’S BEDROOM - DAY
Jamie lies flat on his bed. Julie’s next to him, processing, earnestly worried for him.
What if you had been in the car?
He shrugs, gestures with his hand. She lays beside him on her side. She traces a finger across his hair, his forehead, nose, chest, their hands touch.
I wouldn’t be here. You would’ve missed me?
She traces a finger across his hair, his forehead, nose, chest, their hands touch. He puts his hand on her bare knee, starts to slide up her leg. She easily pulls his hand off.
It was so much easier before you got all horny.
He’s tried this before, but he is really just her friend. He leans away from her.
It’s not like you, don’t -
She likes that she does it. He smiles, used to her love of being provocative. Then serious.
Friends can’t have sex and still be friends.
She snuggles him again innocently, pressing her face into his arm.
Here we have both Jamie’s and Julie’s dramatic situation: Jamie pines for Julie and Julie seeks a platonic relationship. For Julie, Jamie represents more innocent times -- times that are gone forever now. But she feels a rare comfort with him that would only be ruined if sex were to get involved.As a fourteen-year-old, this conundrum is the biggest obstacle in Jamie’s life: and one he’s not going to give up on easily.
And as for Dorothea, we already get the sense that her dramatic situation will revolve around Jamie one way or another, but the script also finds her fixing the house with William -- a therapeutic narrative drive: when she feels like she’s failing in “fixing” Jamie, she can turn to fixing the house:
INT. DOROTHEA’S ENTRY WAY
William takes Dorothea to see the ceiling he worked on. She loves it. It’s pretty messed up. IMPROVISE ABOUT THE WORK DONE.
Dorothea, all that is beautiful molding there.
I want to continue that around the side.
All right, so we're gonna have to re-match that, is that actually wood, or is that plaster?
No, the plaster is underneath it, the molding on the outside there is wood. It'll take some time...
This is a coming-of-age story. In a way, it’s a coming-of-age for not just Jamie but Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie, as well. Like many coming-of-age narratives, the script is also about facing fear -- fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of the future. These fears spark conflicts for the characters -- internally and externally.
Everyone is on a path to find themselves in this script. And everyone’s path is different -- some more unconventional than others, like the storytelling style of the script. But 20th Century Women doesn’t go too wild with its unconvention and that’s what make the script work. It’s subtle. The unconvention of it all has a point: it emulates life.