“C’mon C’mon” and the Empathetic Films of Mike Mills

March 21, 2022   •   By Meghan Gilligan

SALLY ROONEY’S NOVEL Beautiful World, Where Are You opens with an epigraph from Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “My Vocation.” It reads, in part: “But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer.” Throughout Beautiful World, its two writer protagonists, Eileen and Alice, contemplate, via email exchange, the absurdity of writing novels — particularly, of telling “small” stories — in the chaos of the modern world. Why invest energy in such trivialities as “sex and friendship” when society is on the brink of collapse?

Mike Mills, the writer-director behind C’mon C’mon (2021), has expressed a similar ambivalence about the viability of his highly personal films in the landscape of contemporary culture. Is there any appetite for his stories examining quietly complex family relationships? Mills may have doubts about how his “small” films will be received, but he has said that the state of the world is what drives him to make them in the first place. “I make a film to help me have meaning,” he said to GoldDerby. “[To] help me find connection with other people.”

The human desire for connection is not only what drives Mills to create, but it’s also what motivates his characters. Following his feature debut, Thumbsucker (2005), an adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 1999 novel of the same name, Mills began to mine autofictional terrain. Beginners (2010), 20th Century Women (2016), and C’mon C’mon (2021) are all inspired by his primary relationships (with his father, mother, and child, respectively). His films are exercises in understanding the people closest to him, just as his characters try to connect with each other onscreen.

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Beginners is a father-son story based on Mills’s relationship with his own father, who came out as a gay man at the age of 75 before dying from lung cancer five years later. Oliver (Ewan McGregor) narrates the story, which braids together three time frames: the period after his father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) coming out; the period after Hal’s death; and flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood. Mills treats Oliver and Hal, and by extension the viewer, with cinematic empathy. He paints portraits of characters in meticulous strokes, shedding light on their psychological and sociocultural circumstances. This rich context helps the viewer make sense of who they are and where they’re coming from.

The first slideshow-style montage, which Mills has become known for, appears early in the film. “This is 2003,” Oliver says in voice-over. “This is what the sun looks like, and the stars, and nature. This is the president.” Images progress as Oliver speaks from the present day. “And this is the sun in 1955,” he continues. Stock images of cars from the era, a rotary phone, a clip from Lady and the Tramp, and President Eisenhower appear, giving us a feel for the cultural moment at which his parents got married. Gritty scans of their wedding photos; their workplaces; dishes of French toast in various states of consumption — the only meal his mother would have after she got sick with cancer: a kind of Proustian madeleine for Oliver’s painful memories. It was only after Oliver’s mother died that Hal came out, but he knew that he was gay the whole time. In a later sequence, we see a photo of a public restroom. “This is the only place my father could hide and have sex in the ’50s.” Subsequently, footage of the Vice Squad loading gay men into a paddywagon rolls.

Historical consciousness is key for Mills. His documentary style elucidates the cultural frameworks within which characters construct their identities across different eras. Such sequences bolster our understanding of the intergenerational dynamics at play and offer a context that gives Mills’s small stories the scale of epics. “[Mills is interested] in people and their trajectories,” Tad Friend writes in The New Yorker. “[A] maximalist, he wants to reveal the entirety of his characters’ lives and minds.” These characters don’t exist in a vacuum; their stories are part of a larger shared history. While Oliver and Hal attempt to open up to each other (and to their respective love interests), the bigger picture always remains in sight.

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Mills’s next feature, 20th Century Women, follows the coming-of-age of teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), but it’s more of an ensemble portrait of the women in his life. Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, the film at once pays homage to Mills’s mother, who inspired the character Dorothea (Annette Bening), and reflects on how even the people closest to us can be unfathomable. In Millsian montages that act as interludes, the five main characters narrate each other’s biographies with omniscience. They tell us about their pasts, their passions, what music they listen to, what will happen in their futures.

“She’s from the Depression,” Jamie says of his mother, Dorothea. She loves Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca; she tracks stock prices every morning; she chain-smokes Salems “because they’re healthier” and wears Birkenstocks “because she’s contemporary.” She never admits when things have gone wrong. Dorothea is opaque to her son, and she can’t access the person he’s becoming either. “My son was born in 1964,” she says. “He grew up with a meaningless war, with protests, with Nixon … computers, drugs, boredom.” She says she knows him less every day. The chasm separating Jamie and Dorothea can be attributed, in part, to generational differences and to the natural evolution of the parent-child relationship. But it’s not explained to the viewer in full.

Mills’s elliptical storytelling at once stimulates the viewer’s imagination and underlines 20th Century Women’s theme of the unknowability of other people. This is enhanced by the film’s editing. Characters’ biographies take intuitive shape in montage, a technique through which films can reflect the intermittence of life. In Devotional Cinema, experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorksy explores how “life is full of gaps. […] For a film to be true […] its montage has to present a succession of visual events that are sparing enough, and at the same time poignant enough, to allow the viewer’s most basic sense of existence to ‘fill in the blanks.’” By montaging a selection of each characters’ life events, quirks, and belongings, Mills leaves room for the viewer to project the rest.

The specificity of characters’ belongings — clothing items, books, records, cigarettes — grounds 20th Century Women in a specific cultural moment while commenting on the trappings of life in a consumerist society. Characters define themselves and communicate with each other through cultural products, like a mixtape they pass around. Their belongings are photographed against white backdrops, like advertisements or exhibits in a trial. Mills was a graphic designer earlier in his career, making album art and music videos for Air and The Beastie Boys and commercials for Volkswagen. His background working at the intersection of art and commerce coalesces with his interest in the study of culture. Mills is aware of the American way in which we turn to objects to fill a void. “In the ’70s, there was such a vacuum of spirituality, of deeper thinking, that we glommed onto things in an attempt to build a world,” he said to The Cut. Objects can help facilitate communication and connection, but if you follow a trail of someone’s things to know him, you will only get so far.

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20th Century Women was the first Mike Mills film that I encountered. Sitting in my seat at the New York Film Festival as the credits rolled, notebook on my lap in the dark, I remember being overwhelmed with feeling. I emerged from the theater in a reflective state, thinking about my own close relationships, how they looked in the past and what they might look like in the future, how much and how little I know about the people I keep close. Five years later, I got a glimmer of that feeling just from watching the trailer for C’mon C’mon.

C’mon C’mon follows radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) as he’s tasked with taking care of his young nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). Johnny has come to the aid of his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who leaves her home in Los Angeles to tend to her husband’s mental health issues in Oakland. Johnny and Viv lost touch after their mother died a year prior. There was a fight. Exactly what was said is unclear and doesn’t seem to matter. Johnny rekindles his relationship with his nephew and with his sister, who, through calls and texts, relays nuggets of parenting advice and emotional intelligence. When Viv’s trip is extended, Johnny brings Jesse back to New York to continue work on his current project: interviewing kids around the United States about the world today, and what they think about the future.

C’mon C’mon is Mills’s smallest film yet. It centers on two main characters, as opposed to an ensemble cast, and only hints of their backstories are revealed in the narrative. The film’s visuals are pared down to match. Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who worked on Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019), shot the film in black-and-white, vérité style. Inspired by the unlikely friendship at the heart of Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities (1974), Mills conceptualized C’mon C’mon with an archetypal image of a man and child in mind. He chose to make the film in black-and-white to underline its fable-like qualities. “Black-and-white thrusts you into symbolic space,” he said to The Wrap. “[I]t’s more expressionistic and more about art and stories and all of our reflections on ourselves.” Ryan searched for natural light to achieve an “al dente” black-and-white, and clean shots of characters as seen through doorways nod to the simplicity of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, a noted visual influence.

Across Mills’s autofictional films, he primes the viewer for empathetic reflection by using a formula: specific story plus big picture dimension; the visual equivalent of this juxtaposition being an intimate close-up followed by a panoramic wide shot. In Beginners and 20th Century Women, Mills scales family stories into epics by incorporating montages of documentary and familial context. He evolves his approach in C’mon C’mon by weaving big-picture context into the narrative itself. It is the backdrop of Johnny’s documentary radio project, the interviews with kids, that invites the viewer to look beyond Johnny and Jesse’s world.

Mills’s characters tend to be contemplative in nature, and they surprise you the way that real people do. When Johnny and his colleague Roxanne (real-life WNYC Radiolab journalist Molly Webster) ask sweeping questions, their adolescent interviewees answer in a way that demonstrates, at once, awareness of the perils of the world today, paired with unexpected insightfulness and optimism for the future. And the interviews are real. The wisdom of children is one of the film’s underlying themes. The inspiration for Jesse’s character came from Mills’s child, Hopper, saying something insightful and strange during a bath. One moment, Jesse is talking a mile a minute, under the influence of a sugar high — “Get some protein into him,” Viv tells Johnny over the phone, as the man and child walk through Chinatown, “those disgusting salami and cheese rolls” — and the next, Jesse is the one holding the microphone. The assigned interviewee becomes the most powerful interviewer. “And he asked me, why am I not married?” Johnny records himself saying in an earlier scene, after reading Jesse The Wizard of Oz before bed. “I didn’t tell him that I want to be, that I miss Louisa. I made it into a weird joke. Why did I do that?”

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Like 20th Century Women, I saw C’mon C’mon at the New York Film Festival, but this time I sat in my folding theater seat beside my brother Kevin. Four years my junior, and among four siblings, Kevin and I share the position of middle child. Like the relationships at the heart of Mills’s films — Johnny and Viv; Jamie and Dorothea — my dynamic with my brother has shifted over time. Periods of closeness have been punctuated by those where we’ve fallen out of touch. Exactly why is unclear and probably doesn’t matter. When my father died suddenly in 2015, Kevin and I bonded by watching films together. Films were occasions for connection when it was difficult to talk about, or even identify, how we were feeling.

I have countless memories of watching films with Kevin during this era. In the summer — when we worked on Martha’s Vineyard in between semesters in college and graduate school, respectively, we watched movies together at night: Love & Mercy (2015) at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, after eating fried seafood from checkered paper boats in the parking lot; Chinatown (1974) and Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) on the couch at home. And back in New York that winter — in the park on Chrystie Street, we shared a joint with our significant others before seeing James White (2015) at the Sunshine, my favorite theater, since demolished. The film follows James (Christopher Abbott), who struggles to take control of his emotions (and his vices) as he grieves the death of his father and takes care of his sick mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon). The sun was down when we exited the theater, and walking west to east on Houston Street, in the cold, I remember something Kevin said to me about the film, but we were also talking about something else.

We didn’t know all of the things that would happen between then and now — about all of the people who would come into our lives, and those who would leave. We didn’t know that he’d graduate and move upstate to Kingston, where, today, he keeps a drawer of old movie ticket stubs, halfway to anachronistic, and wears his Knicks winter hat with the flaps that I gave him for Christmas years ago. Where he listens to his favorite records — “Mona Bone Jakon” by Cat Stevens and John Lewis’s “Improvised Meditations and Excursions” — ones he bought in dusty secondhand stores, he doesn’t remember exactly where. Where he has a framed photo of my parents in the ’80s propped up on the windowsill in his apartment, next to his couch, where he watches movies projected onto the wall.

Films have acted as shared vehicles for escapism, and proxies for casual conversations, like those we have when he sends me lower-case texts, muted like he is, after seeing on Letterboxd that I watched something new. But some films prompt more vulnerable communication. Dorsky writes about his “post-film experience” in a movie theater’s elevator, after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954): “Usually the time in the elevator is a ‘no’ time. We either stare up at the numbers or down at the floor, trying to deny the intimacy of the situation.” But in this case, “I noticed that everybody was unusually available to everybody else. People had tears in their eyes.”

This state of being available to other people, if only within the window of an elevator ride, is not produced by way of viewer identification with the particulars of a story. It comes from watching something that feels human, and true. This is the feeling I have gotten, if only for the duration of a walk down Broadway, after watching Mills’s films.

Some critics have called Mills’s work saccharine. Mills has said that through his films he attempts to create something positive, “hopefully not Pollyanna-ish,” in the world. His small films’ stories may be ignored by the industry — C’mon C’mon received no Oscar nominations; and Mills got less funding to make the film in black-and-white than he would have for color — but they have the potential to put the audience in a vulnerable state: a condition for meaningful connection. As Eileen writes to Alice, halfway through Beautiful World: “After all, when people are lying on their deathbeds, don’t they always start talking about their spouses and children?” What we’re left with at the end of life are the small stories we continue to tell, regardless of what else is going on in the world.

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Meghan Gilligan is a writer living in New York.