C'mon C'mon Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: These programme notes are best read after viewing the film as they contain discussion of plot and character details.

‘Most of my films, most of my writing, needs to start with someone I know, someone I can observe, someone who I love and someone that I'm trying to figure out.’ [i]

So says writer/director Mike Mills, and it is clearly a process that works; he is a master at mining his own life in very specific ways to find emotional truths that connect with all kinds of people. His 2010 film Beginners was inspired by his relationship with his father, who came out as gay very late in life. The film that he made next, 20th Century Women (2016), was a reflection on how he was raised by his mother. With C’mon C’mon he has turned the focus to his own role as a father, looking at what it means to care for a child. He approaches the question by telling the story of Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), an unattached middle-aged radio journalist who agrees to take care of his nine-year old nephew Jessie (Woody Norman), to support his sister Viv (Gabby Hoffman) while she has to help Jessie’s dad, Paul (Scoot McNairy) who is struggling with mental health issues.

The success of C’mon C’mon is in how Mills takes this central theme – the relationship between a parent and child – and then adds so many more layers to the film, to create a really rich work that bursts with ideas and wise observations of life as we live it. Those many layers can pass us by while watching the film, as they are so elegantly woven together. Around the central story of Johnny’s week essentially becoming Jessie’s parent, there are multiple montages that flashback to show us Johnny and Viv caring for their mother in her last weeks of life, and Viv and Jessie in different situations with Jessie’s dad, Paul. Then there are the interview segments, with Johnny and his colleague Roxanne working on their radio project, gathering the opinions of schoolchildren on subjects like ‘What happens when you die?’ and ‘Do you feel hopeful?’ Added to this are sections where Johnny narrates passages from books that he is reading, and the titles come up on screen – in a sense allowing Mills to give us a further insight into the inspirations for his film, and the themes he is pursuing, from the pressures of motherhood to the power of documentary-making.

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More than any of his previous films, C’mon C’mon finds Mills merging documentary and fiction in a truly fruitful way. This is absolutely a fiction film, but so much of its power is a result of Mills allowing the real lives of the cast and crew to bleed onto the screen. The interviews with the school children are authentic – Phoenix and Molly Webster (a real-life radio journalist making her acting debut as Roxanne) had scripted questions, but the children’s answers are their own. Gaby Hoffman happened to be rapping a flawless rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Shoop’ on set, so Mills asked her to do it in the movie to illustrate an element of Viv and Jessie’s relationship. The hilarious and disturbing ‘orphan story’ that Jessie insists on playing out at bedtime came from one of the film’s composers, Aaron Dessner, who mentioned it as something his own daughter went through a phase of doing. Mills refers to this whole approach as a ‘documentary mentality.’ It also informed the fact that there was no hair and make-up team on this film; everyone appears as themselves, unadorned and beautifully human. The result is that the film is a constant stream of empathetic, recognisable moments. One of the most effective moments is when Jessie tells Johnny about Viv having an abortion. Johnny is dumbstruck, then begins fumbling for words – Phoenix’s expression so perfectly captures the sense of ‘I have no answers’ – but it is then immediately clear that Jessie isn’t looking for a discussion; he just wants a connection. There is so much truth about children and how they communicate in this moment, and its specificity is what makes it so resonant.

In an early scene where Jessie is trying out Johnny’s recording equipment, Johnny says he loves recording audio because, 'You're recording this banal thing, but you're, like, keeping it forever. You're, like, making it immortal.' This idea of making something banal immortal is at the heart of what Mills is doing too. This is not a film of high drama, rather it’s a film that recognises the real valuable moments of life are banal and everyday; they become immortal because of the feelings we attach to them.

It’s notable that for a film that involves long-distance travel between four far-flung cities, C’mon C’mon features no scenes of actual travelling. Rather than showing us the characters going from one place to another, Mills chooses to establish a new location with an invariably beautiful shot, then Johnny and Jessie are there, and we are with them. This speaks to an idea that runs like a steady undercurrent through the film, and is implicit in its title too: life just keeps happening. We don’t quite know how, but we’re here already; it’s tomorrow, it’s still going, we’re in the moment. It’s a particularly familiar feeling for any parent of young children – that life is continuing and you have no control of it – and one that Viv voices in one of her many insightful comments to Johnny: ‘Nobody knows what they’re doing; you just have to keep doing it.’ The truth is that it’s the doing that leads to the knowing, and never the other way round. Mike Mills really understands this, and this understanding informs every glorious frame of C’mon C’mon.

Paul Gallagher GFT Programme Manager

If you have watched C’mon C’mon and want to share your thoughts on the film, we would love to hear from you. Tweet @glasgowfilm or email feedback@glasgowfilm.org and tell us what you thought.

[i] https://www.npr.org/2021/11/18/1056761922/mike-mills-cmon-cmon-joaquin-phoenix-a-24?t=1637927695714

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