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How Mike Mills Has Perfected the Art of the Voiceover

From music videos to documentaries and feature films, Mike Mills has done it all. He is perhaps best known for 20th Century Women, which earned him a Best Screenplay nomination at the Oscars, starring Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig just before she embarked on her directorial career. Some of his lesser-known movies are Thumbsucker, a comedy about an adult man trying to break his thumb-sucking addiction, and Does Your Soul Have a Cold?, which is a documentary about depression in Japan. Even with this breadth of subject matter and formats, Mills maintains a unified style, often incorporating scrapbook-style filmmaking and voiceover.


The classic Mike Mills style can be seen strongly in Beginners and 20th Century Women, which fall back to back in his filmography. The former is about his father and the latter is about his mother, though neither is 100% fact-based nor autobiographical — they act as an impression of each parental figure. One of the essential parts of these two movies is the voiceover, not only as a way of conveying important plot points but also as a method of exploring the characters of his parents. Here’s how Mike Mills has perfected the art of the voiceover, using it as more than just a contextualization tool.

Voiceovers That Go Beyond Exposition

Olympus Pictures

When you think of a voiceover your mind might automatically go to the cheesy ’90s trailer “In a world…” style that is there to spell out plot points that were already obvious and adds no real depth or new information. There have been plenty of unnecessary voiceovers over the years that point to lazy and uninspired storytelling, but that’s not what Mills is about. His movies are carefully composed, even if their structures are loose and meandering, they are deliberately so.

Both Beginners and 20th Century Women are constructed in a way that incorporates sections of voiceover with external images and clips being displayed. This often serves the purpose of providing temporal or informational context. For example, in Beginners, we receive a lot of information about the main character’s father’s life and history in this way. This avoids additional flashbacks which would further complicate the movie’s structure, which is primarily made up of two timelines. The same can be said for 20th Century Women, which is only made of one timeline, but these moments of voiceover and collage enable an establishment of the 80s time period, and, later, a look into the future of the characters’ lives.

Related: Is it Time to Kill Voiceover Narration in Movies?

Speaking to Interview Magazine, Mills discusses this montage-collage style, saying, “All the drawings in the film and all the stills, that’s kind of how I see things. To me that’s a natural, visual, language — a bouquet of actually really simple elements.” The use of voiceover acts as a uniting and simplifying technique, bringing together the movies’ different time periods and visual elements. It creates a cleaner and more cohesive end product rather than adding more obvious information onto a movie that is already overly explained.

Humanizing Unknowable Parents

Annette Bening in 20th Century Women

Parents are some of the most unknowable and unreachable figures in our lives. For most of our childhoods, it’s hard to even understand them as individual people beyond being people charged with our care. This is particularly applicable to Mills and his experiences with his parents. His father was emotionally absent for the majority of his life until he came out as gay in his 70s and, at the same time, he revealed he had terminal cancer. In an interview with NPR, Mills discusses this saying, “The way he died was just so intense and wild, and part of my grief process, whatever, was writing that script.” His mother also died of cancer, and in the same interview Mills reveals, “Since I was 5, I’ve been trying to figure out my mom. And she’s a very mysterious person.”

Like so many of us, Mills uses art to explore his relationships with his parents. His movies create space to paint them as whole humans, beyond his conception of them in his mind. As the writer of his screenplays, he can become part of conversations between his parents and people who are not himself, which is impossible in real life. There is a moment in 20th Century Women in which Bening’s character, Mills’ surrogate mother, talks about how she envies people who get to see her son out in the world as himself. This sentiment seems to flow both ways, it’s impossible to escape the boundaries imposed by a parent-child relationship, you can never see the other as their whole self no matter how hard you try or how much you would like to.

Related: The Best Movies to Master Voiceover Narrations, Ranked

The use of voiceover acts as a kind of extension of this idea, particularly in 20th Century Women, in which his mother is given opening and closing monologues. These speeches open a channel into his mother’s interiority in a way that can’t be accessed in conversation, where thoughts are inevitably filtered. Conversely, in Beginners, the voiceover comes from Mills’ stand-in. He relays the story of his father’s life, from his early emotional distance to his first wonderful and transformative relationship with a man in the years before his death. In this way, Beginners acts as more of a celebration of the years in which Mills’ father became more accessible and human. Whereas while 20th Century Women celebrates Mills’ mother and the way she raised him, the movie is more of an exploration of her character and investigation into who she truly was.

This story originally appeared on Movieweb

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