When writer-director Mike Mills had a child in 2014 it was, for him, an instantly disorienting, then slowly revealing, transition. Mills knew he wanted to explore what was happening. But, in his typical way, his screenplay for C’mon C’mon became a kind of cinematic auto-fiction: a candid, highly subjective self-accounting, one that takes place inside an imagined family and pulls from myriad influences around him—the movies, music, books, and people that inspire him, as well as the rhythms and textures of the culture we all live in right now.
Writer-director Mike Mills has previously made a film inspired by his father (Beginners) and a film inspired by his mother (20th Century Women). With C’mon C’mon, he tells a story that is in some ways even closer to his lived experience: a story that excavates the rarely explored richness, but also the trickiness, of the adult-child relationship. At the same time, it surveys the most panoramic of themes: the idea that the future—in our personal lives and society at large—hinges on how we are able to talk to one another.
“When you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be?”
Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon is an ode to the relationship between adults and children. It’s the story of a middle-aged man learning how to take care of a kid for the first time, set against a panorama of twenty-first-century American cities and issues. It’s a story of an adult learning how to treat a child’s needs, worries, and joys with full respect; learning that they are different but not less than an adult’s.
Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny, a hardworking radio journalist interviewing young people across the country about the future. Suddenly, his plans are upended by a family crisis when Johnny’s estranged sister (Gaby Hoffmann) needs him to step in as caretaker to her child, Jesse (Woody Norman). Johnny has lots of reasons to want to be there for his sister, but he has no experience with parenting a child—let alone one as smart and perceptive as Jesse.
It’s an emotionally loaded and often funny situation, which Mills turns into an intensely personal exploration of a man abruptly dropped into the deeply challenging and all-consuming world of parenting, with all its difficulties and wonders. Through the delightful times, sad times, hushed nights, and astonishing days, Johnny and Jesse find a tentative, yet transformative, trust. They push one another to hang tight through anxieties, to say what could not be said, to not let each other off the hook. And as they grow closer, this delicately contained story expands to touch on things far larger: our interconnectedness, what we owe to the future, what we remember, who we remember our past with, and how caring about one another becomes a way to heal when moving into the unknown.
Blending sharpness and tenderness in every element—with its mix of classic black & white photography, vivid immersions into American cities, deeply felt performances, and unscripted interviews with real young Americans—C’mon C’mon is Mills’ most cinematically playful and far-reaching story to date.
Mills is fascinated by the pervasive links between the small, individual worlds we each inhabit and the big ones we live in together
“With C’mon C’mon, I wanted to play with opposing scales,” Mills says. “On the one hand, the film is about the smallest of moments: giving a kid a bath, talking before bedtime. On the other, you’re travelling to big cities, hearing young people think out loud about their futures and the world’s future, so the intimate story is happening in the context of a far larger one. I often feel this same spectrum with my kid: our time together is so private, yet the biggest concerns of life are all there.”
Writing about the most personal fears and intimate triumphs of parenting became entwined, for Mills, with
documenting some of the vast complexity of young lives in the early twenty-first century America, as kids inherit the perils of our times from bewildered adults.
He hit on the road movie as an ideal structure for that mix. He could not help but think of a film he loves, Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities—the story of a German journalist who travels with a young girl after her mother doesn’t show up. “Early on, I thought of C’mon C’mon as almost a blues riff on Alice in the Cities,” says Mills, “because, like Wenders, I wanted to explore a child character as a creature with volition, concerns and wants, and fears that are as valid as any adult’s.”
But the story soon took off in its own direction. Mills created the lead character of Johnny as a contemporary radio journalist—a man drawn to the art of listening, yet perhaps a bit out of time. Johnny’s occupation draws from Mills’ life—in 2014, he made a documentary for MoMA, A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas Alone, in which Silicon Valley kids imagine what the future might look like technologically, environmentally, and personally. Johnny is making a similar radio series, travelling to different cities to talk to a broad spectrum of kids about their joys, fears, and hopes.
Johnny is clearly not a precise counterpart of Mills. He is insular, even willfully alone, estranged from his sister and split from his longtime girlfriend. He doesn’t anticipate how caring for Jesse will shake up his life. But what Mills homes in on is how liberating it becomes for Johnny, how it lays bare certain things he had not seen about himself, and how healing it is to take care of this kid.
Mills chose to write about an uncle in part because it was a way to plunge an unsuspecting character literally overnight into the full-on intensity of parenting. “Johnny has to learn everything a parent learns but very, very fast,” he says. “As a father, I’ve found that you feel you’re constantly a novice, trying to keep up as things shift, and this was a way of recreating that confusion, that always being not quite ready for what’s happening. Of course, you don’t have to be a biological parent to experience that. You can be an uncle, an aunt, a teacher, or a caretaker.”
Mills felt the pull to render a child’s closeness to an adult with all the complications, mixed motives, and bursts of wonder found in any major relationship—on both sides. “There’s a constantly interesting back-and-forth you have with a child that we rarely talk about,” Mills says. “It can be as light as playing but then it can be as deep as an adult relationship you’ve ever had.”
A constant theme in Mills’ work is memory, the things that persist, the things we miss, and that particular sinking fear that those elusive bolts of bliss can’t help but slip through our fingers. In C’mon C’mon, Johnny has the urgent sense that he needs to somehow capture what is happening with Jesse, even if all he has is their voices to do it.
As he wrote, Mills realized that ultimately the script would be reliant on two actors taking the roles to places he couldn’t foresee. That’s exactly what happened when Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman entered the picture.
Suddenly, Mills was capturing the thrillingly immediate unfolding of a fellowship right there in the rooms and streets where they were shooting.
“What started as me trying to document and think about my life with my kid became equally a portrait of the relationship that developed between Joaquin and Woody,” Mills says. “I really tried to embrace that and let the camera capture that. And that’s when I get most excited as a filmmaker: when things feel that alive, unpredictable, surprising.”
The Unique Relationship Between Director And Actor
Casting Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny was not the typical process for Mills—it was instead a non-linear course of talking and exploring, then talking and exploring more. They acted out the script from front to back together, with Mills playing all the other parts aside from Johnny. “I’m not an actor and it was quite intimidating,” Mills laughs. “But Joaquin likes to experience things.”
For a long while, Mills forged ahead in the liminal zone of not being sure if Phoenix would take the role. But once he did, they found their instincts deeply aligned. “Joaquin doesn’t like when things feel like acting, and the more real things feel, the more he can play and be free,” Mills describes. “So, working with him became about constructing a situation wherein those feelings would naturally happen.” As they talked over every line, Phoenix became a confidante for Mills. “Joaquin has a super high radar for B.S., and he helped make me aware when anything felt fishy or expositional and was just a great comrade and friend – always trying to figure out how we could make it better, more specific and real”
On set, Mills often marvelled at Phoenix’s emotional translucency, his ability to obliterate any barrier between his inner world and the camera. His work in the film felt different to Mills, certainly in stark opposition to the prickly and alienated loners he portrayed in The Master and Joker. “I think this is new turf for Joaquin,” comments Mills. “It can be the hardest kind of acting, when you’re not so much transforming into a fiction as reflecting, naturalistically, behaviours closer to who you are.”
Phoenix became so absorbed in the role he asked Mills if he might start experimenting with making recordings of Johnny just talking in bed about his day with Jesse. This would ultimately add an unguarded sub-layer to the film. “You hear yourself differently when you hold a mic,” Phoenix notes. “It was an opportunity for Johnny to give voice to his most private thoughts.”
These introspective, nakedly confessional moments became a counterweight to the electricity and playfulness of the scenes between Phoenix and Norman. While Mills was writing as a father, Phoenix keyed into the idea of an uncle being almost— but not quite—a parental figure. “An uncle is more a friend,” he says. “But I think there’s something in the film that gets to the idea that we’re all responsible for children in terms of the world that we leave them and the actions we take, even if you’re not a parent. There’s also something very interesting about the idea that through our guardianship of children we can become more curious and open as people.”
Throughout, Phoenix was also observing Mills. While Johnny is not a direct replica, the influence is palpable. “I literally took his shoes from him for Johnny,” Phoenix laughs, “and the hair is inspired by him. Honestly, I think when a film is this personal, you’re always gleaning information from the writer. There’s a warmth and a sensitivity to Mills that informs the character. He’s someone who’s affected by what he sees in the world and feels things very strongly.”
That warmth and sensitivity was also something Phoenix felt in the way Johnny fits into the larger world of the film.
“What stands out about Mike is how balanced and fair he is to each character,” Phoenix says. “Johnny could easily have been the most understood of the characters, but Mike is equally curious about all of them, and each person is fully alive and complex and has their own perspective.
Woody Norman grew up in the UK and came to the fore in the popular BBC series “Poldark.” He’d never carried a film before, but Mills sensed he had the strength. “In a great way, Woody’s not out at all to please you. Woody’s out to figure out what seems true and real to him. He’s confident but he’s not particularly reverential,” Mills muses, “which is a lot like Jesse.”
Woody Norman related to Jesse, albeit not to his love of classical music, being a heavy metal fan himself. Mostly, he liked that Jesse is a typically modern kid who already has a lot on his mind. “My favourite thing about Jesse is that I see him as part child and part adult,” Norman explains. “He looks like a child, but he has some very adult thoughts, which kids do have.” The script also offered him an emotional pendulum rare in roles for his age group. “In the span of a few minutes there is funny, sad, happy, and angry,” Norman observes. “And I think that’s what human relationships are really like.”
Phoenix dubbed Norman “X-Factor” because he would do things so outside the lines. “He’s an outgoing, super smart, hysterically funny kid,” Phoenix describes. “He would just come up with things that were showstoppers, ad-libs that felt so personal and lived-in and suggested a full history of the character.”
That sparked fresh reactions in Phoenix as well. “I’m always trying to get back to the kind of acting I did as a kid because you’re so free, not self-conscious or really aware of having any particular persona. It was beautiful to witness that,” he says.
“Woody was a guide in so many ways. Nothing would ever throw him off. For me, I’ve been doing it for so long it’s easy to get stuck into patterns. As far as he was concerned, there were no mistakes.”
“Woody and Joaquin developed a powerful bond – you see their own real relationship and closeness developing in real-time. It wasn’t pretending and it led to moments like Woody suddenly putting his head on Joaquin’s stomach in New Orleans. I didn’t say to do that. They were just fully there.
Following road movie rules, C’mon C’mon was shot chronologically. The guiding principle was to keep the touch light, non-intrusive, and, in Mills’ words, “to let the real world into the film as much as possible.” Most locations were practical, not closed off to the public and even the houses utilized were those of old and new friends, further adding to the enveloped family feeling. There was no hair-and-makeup crew and very little of the film was art directed per se.