The 20th Century Women director’s latest offering stars Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist who embarks on a road trip with his nine-year-old nephew
Five years after directing 20th Century Women, Mike Mills has returned with a poignant meditation on 21st century children. Shot evocatively in hustling, bustling, pre-pandemic cities, Mills’ fourth feature, C’mon C’mon, stars Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist, Johnny, who forms an unlikely bond with his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). Interspersed within the delicate, witty drama are Johnny’s interviews with real children speaking of the future: their hopes, their fears, their sincere responses to Phoenix’s journalism style. One example of a question: if you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
On the week of the film’s theatrical release in the UK, I ask Mills, over Zoom, if he also considers C’mon C’mon to be a story about 21st century children. “Not really,” the 55-year-old director says from his home in LA. “That’s too big. But maybe you’re right. 20th Century Women was based on very specific women from my life, but by calling it that, I was trying to talk about women, or expand the individual experience I’d been with to a broader thing.” C’mon C’mon, similarly, was inspired by Mill’s family. “My kid started as my kid, then grew into his own planet. But I wanted to talk about much more than our little private experience. I was trying to make the connection between our private intimacy and this much larger, societal image of kids.”
Mills has formed a pattern of writing about his relatives, often half a decade apart. 2010’s Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor, was partly about how his father came out as gay after his mother’s death. With 2016’s 20th Century Women, an ensemble comedy starring Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Annette Bening, Mills paid tribute to his mother and the other female figures of his childhood. However, despite the critical acclaim of 20th Century Women – Mills’ screenplay received an Oscar nomination – the writer/director felt depressed in a country that had just elected Donald Trump as its President. So he turned to Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities, a gorgeous, monochrome drama from 1974, for repeat comfort viewing.
Whereas 20th Century Women is brightly lit and opens with a burning car – even Gerwig’s hair is dyed glow-in-the-dark red – C’mon C’mon is lensed in black-and-white, paying homage to Wenders’ collaborations with cinematographer Robby Müller and framing Phoenix as a classical movie star. Yet C’mon C’mon feels extremely modern. The Wenders movie I sensed a closer connection with is Wings of Desire, in which voiceovers reveal Berlin to be populated with silently anxious citizens – a similar effect to Johnny’s interviews with children across America.
“I lurve those two Wim Wenders movies,” Mills says. “Wings of Desire has influenced all my movies. That contemplative quality. What exactly is the plot? The plot’s not really what’s interesting about that movie. It’s the thinking out loud: the considering, the asking.” He compares the drone shots of C’mon C’mon to Wenders’ use of helicopters. “You have the individual and then – whoosh. That individual is still there, but it’s this expandable look at it all.”
Like Wender’s early work, C’mon C’mon is a warm, profound movie with a logline that sounds less thrilling on paper. While an uncle/nephew road trip may sound like a Sundance quirkathon, Mills and his stellar cast keep the drama grounded and uncover cinematic poetry in how loneliness can be cured by curiosity. It’s aided, too, by Mill’s lyrical editing: scenes unfold as snippets of conversations, as if extracted from real-life moments. By doing so, the believable messiness of Johnny’s family is teased out in increments, sketching out a complicated situation involving siblings who struggle to explain why they refused to speak to each other for a year.
“My kid started as my kid, then grew into his own planet. But I wanted to talk about much more than our little private experience. I was trying to make the connection between our private intimacy and this much larger, societal image of kids” – Mike Mills
That all changes when Viv (Gaby Hoffman), a single mother in LA, asks her brother, Jonny, for a favour. Viv’s estranged husband has fallen ill, and so Johnny flies over from New York to care for Jesse. At Johnny’s suggestion, Jesse then joins his uncle on work trips in New York and New Orleans to interview 21st century children. In a reverse of roles, Jesse pesters Jonny with direct questions (“Why aren’t you married?” “Why did you and my mother stop talking?”) that adults don’t usually pose. Although Jonny’s peers code their language with politics and etiquette, the kids of C’mon C’mon speak more honestly and from the heart – their words thus carry more resonance.
“I live with a kid,” Mills explains. “It’s my favourite way to write. I’m hearing little bits. I’m around it – not just my kid, but the others kids at school, and all my friends’ kids. Woody’s the end-arbiter of everything that character says. If Woody felt there was something bogus or BS-y, I would be like, ‘Thank you for helping me make it better.’” One of Jesse’s hobbies is to pretend to be an orphan and force the adult, whether Viv or Johnny, to roleplay as a grieving parent who’s seeking a new child. “I got the orphan game from (The National’s) Aaron Dessner’s daughter, Ingrid. I asked her, ‘Tell me exactly all the steps of it.’ She did it in a voice memo. I transferred that into the script.”
While Ira Glass is thanked in the credits, Mills denies that Johnny is an amalgamation of himself and the NPR radio icon. “Maybe at the beginning,” Mills says. “I do love This American Life, and I’ve done documentary work.” Instead, Phoenix was drawn to the likes of Pulitzer-winning broadcaster and author Studs Terkel. “Joaquin’s really different. And that’s what I love about him. Johnny is his own creation. It doesn’t feel super-me at all.”
C’mon C’mon was Phoenix’s first acting gig after Joker and, though the actor has said otherwise, Johnny largely feels like the inverse of a crazed, starved clown with a hideous wardrobe. Phoenix’s talent has always been to depict characters in the moment – so much so, you don’t believe he’s performing – but Mill’s seemingly off-the-cuff filming style truly captures the actor with a humanity so warm, so believable, and so strong that you almost want to hug the screen. The contradiction is that Phoenix can always “play himself”, so to speak, yet never repeats himself from project to project.
“I’m going to tell him that,” Mills says. “That’s accurate. What Joaquin does, I’m not going to pretend I understand. It’s deep, weird stuff that he does. He’s very funny. On set, he’s a total joy, and amazingly good at not acting. He finds a way so that he’s not putting anything on. He’s feeling all that stuff, which is a trippy job, and never forcing it, or faking it, or making something happen. That’s really strong, especially for a lead actor who everyone adores, to react and relax into it.”
“What Joaquin does, I’m not going to pretend I understand. It’s deep, weird stuff that he does. He’s very funny” – Mike Mills
To lose weight for Joker, Phoenix allegedly only ate apples and asparagus. Did he have any similarly painful methods to emulate the depraved lifestyle of a journalist? “No, I think he’s really smart about changing his process. This film didn’t need stuff like that. But him and (Radiolab producer) Molly Webster did radio interviews to prepare. And we talked for months and months and months about the script… his process was not method-y at all.”
While Mills directed music videos for the likes of Pulp, Air, and Yoko Ono before moving into features with 2005’s Thumbsucker, he considers his background to be more rooted in graphic design – he did posters and album covers for artists such as Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. His script for 20th Century Women is thus uniquely formatted with columns for montages (“it felt better to do dual dialogue for the audio and the visuals”) and he carries other idiosyncrasies onto his film sets.
For instance, crew members wear a name tag that changes every day depending on a rotating question: the name of your memoir; your Sesame Street name; if you prefer The Beatles of The Rolling Stones. Gerwig was so impressed by the positive vibes it generated, she adopted the practice for Lady Bird. “I try many ways to enchant the set,” Mills explains. “Every film of mine begins with a blessing from some Buddhist monks. The whole crew’s there. You’re asking the film gods to come help you, right?
“And I play music a lot. I have live musicians sometimes, like a French horn or violin, or I’ll play music off my phone on a speaker, but all day long, between every scene. It helps the set and the world you’re in not feel like a job. Music is the most magically powerful of the arts. I literally believe that I’m summoning magic to be in the same space that we’re shooting, and it totally works.”
Mills’ kinship with music is reflected in the drama’s hypnotic rhythm, which he obsessively edited during lockdown, at home, with a few pointers from famous friends, such as Joachim Trier, the Norwegian filmmaker behind The Worst Person in the World. “He watched multiple cuts and gave me notes,” Mills says. “I just had lunch with him yesterday. He’s so smart and so wickedly articulate. One of the smartest directors I know.”
The bounciness of the film – it jumps back and forth to depict memories both traumatic and positive – also details the multiple perspectives around its primary themes: raising a child, mental health, and grief. There are no right answers for, say, how Viv deals with the mental health crisis of her husband, with whom she’s also separated, or how much discipline is required for a harmless child whose biggest crimes are demanding ice cream for dinner and running off in busy streets. When Johnny turns to Google for parenting advice, Jesse recognises his uncle’s semi-scripted vocabulary – his mother uses the internet, too.
“My understanding of reality and families – obviously when I say family, I don’t mean biological; it’s whoever’s there in your life that’s with you, that’s taking care of you – is that the spectrum of health, and what’s considered positive and negative, is so crazy and varied, and all happening at the same time. The spectrum of whether you’re a good, helpful, productive parent – it’s a chaotic loop of well/not well; positive/not positive; executing something you didn’t intend.
“I hope I’m ambiguous and non-judgemental. I’m sure a smart person can look at my movie and point out eight different ways I’m being judgemental and a fuck.” He laughs. “I would like not to be, though.”
If Mills has tackled his mother, his father, and his child, what’s next? His long-term relationship with fellow filmmaker, Miranda July? “Marriage? Is that your guess? I’m going to put it on a list for the people guessing.” The director claims to have nothing planned for the moment, joking, “I have a very cute dog. Maybe the dog will get a movie. It will be in Claymation, and it will be great.”
Over the end credits, Mills plays out an audio montage of kids open-heartedly responding to Phoenix’s philosophical questions, so I finish the interview by throwing one back at him: if you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? “Only one?! I’m not going to do something magical like be younger. I like my age. I just don’t want to die!” Mills laughs, then considers his answer. “I’m going to tell you something I got from Joaquin. Joaquin is very dextrous and fluid and comfortable with his flaws and disappointments. He knows the measure of them, and how to live with them. It’s really empowering and beautiful.
“If you’re like me, and you’re worried about letting people down, and worried about anyone thinking not great things about you, and you want to impress and always lead with your best qualities – that’s just lame. It’s not really an expansive, awesome way to move through the world. I’d be more in touch and owning my flaws in a way that’s admitting them – with humour and buoyancy.”
C’mon C’mon opens in UK cinemas on December 3