Awards Daily talks to writer/director Mike Mills about creating a film with a fresh take on parenting in A24’s C’mon C’mon.
We’ve all seen the movie where the fish-out-of-water childless adult becomes a caregiver to a beyond-cute child. Typically, the adult is a cold-hearted person who warms to parenthood after meeting a particular kid, or in some case, children. These types of films can be insulting on a multitude of levels, from the way they always depict childless individuals as chilly and selfish, to assuming audiences won’t catch on to this hackneyed premise.
Writer/director Mike Mills was all too aware of the propension for this type of movie cliche and schmaltz while writing his latest film, C’mon C’mon, about an estranged uncle (Joaquin Phoenix) who reconnects with his sister (Gaby Hoffman) and her quirky son, Jesse (Woody Norman).
“My films are kind of heavy but kind of not, too,” says Mills. “Joaquin was so smart about helping with that. Because Joaquin wants to get to the sweet place, but understands you have to include all of the turbulence and mild chaos and all the unknown things in life to really have that sweetness be real. He was a great comrade, co-worker, co-helper in creating that.”
“It’s about who shows up—not your biology.”
Fresh off of his Oscar win for Joker, Phoenix’s Johnny is a nuanced portrayal of an outsider thrown into parenthood, which really isn’t much different than being a parent, says Mills.
“I think a lot of people identify with the Johnny character more because he’s not a biological parent. It gives you more elbow room or access to the film. Then it was a great device because he doesn’t know how to parent so he has to learn every single scene, every single day, every single moment. He has to learn, fail and figure it out, which is actually what it feels like to be a parent. To me, that’s what every day is like.”
In constructing Johnny, Mills keeps the character’s background with romantic relationships vague (though you learn that he had a recent unsuccessful relationship when Jesse asks him why he isn’t married).
“Joaquin, if he were here, he’d say, well, people are so complicated. ‘Do you know why you’re doing anything you’re doing, let alone someone who’s not you?’ To reduce Johnny, I really resist that. There are a bunch of different reasons, and we don’t know. And actually not knowing is maybe the most interesting, powerful thing to lead with. I think that’s what Joaquin would say. I love that my actor was demanding that. Because often an actor will want, ‘Why?’ Joaquin was like, ‘No why. Just be.'”
Johnny’s age may be an element into how the reconnection with his nephew hits at the right time.
“When you’re middle aged, your vulnerability to the world, to life, to love, to relationships, is increasing geometrically, and your willingness to acknowledge your mistakes is increasing, I’ve found. So you’re at this place when you’re both more ready, willing, and able and more dexterous, to go through the problems and tolerate all of the deep, unnerving ambiguity of relationships, and at the same time you’re more vulnerable to all the pain and loneliness. I think that makes him more ready.”
With Johnny, Mills also liked exploring the idea of being a parent when you’re not a parent and about how it’s “about who shows up—not your biology.”
“I really like the expansive idea of family or primary connection. Families don’t have to be biological, they don’t have to be a man and woman. That’s really important to me. And all of my films have had families that are in some way nonnormative. I want them to be. Being a child of a gay person, it’s very important to me.”
Blurring the Lines Between Documentary and Fiction
In the film, Johnny works as a radio journalist, and for his latest assignment, he is traveling the country interviewing children about what they think about the future. Mills’ background in documentary work comes through in these moments, with real-life commentary from real-life kids, but the writer/director also thinks that his collective narrative work in general has nonfiction elements.
“Part of this film came out of past work I did. I love documentary stuff. I often treat my narrative filmmaking like documentary filmmaking, where I’m trying to include qualities like that. I also love radio. The end of my movie, with the credits, the sound of the kids’ answers and ambience and Jesse’s recordings, I love to do that, too. I’m always trying to find a way to blur the line between documentary and fiction.”
With the sounds of children filling the theater as you leave the auditorium, it’s no wonder that Mills’ films have often been characterized as sweet. With C’mon C’mon, you leave the theater feeling a little warmer in the heart after having maybe even shed a tear or two, especially after Johnny’s conversation with Jesse about memory and childhood.
“I’ve been made aware of my sweetness by very smart critics,” he laughs. “Sometimes I’m repulsed by my own Pisces emotionality and wanting to be connected, which comes off as sweetness. It is a weakness on my side.”
C’mon C’mon is now playing.