C’mon C’mon

Posted on November 24, 2021 at 2:18 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, graphic nudity, and some sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress, sad offscreen death, mental illness of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 19, 2021
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 2022

Copyright A24 2021
I can’t remember a movie that captured as well as Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” the intense, constant feelings of terror, inadequacy, panic, exhaustion, that is parenthood, plus the tsunami of love and gratitude and hope and hilarity. He even captures the heartbreaking sorrow in understanding that childhood is fleeting and no matter what you do you cannot protect them from the injustices of the world. This is one of the best films of the year.

Writer/director Mills based his previous films on his parents. Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his role in “Beginners,” based on Mills’ father, who came out as gay late in life. Annette Bening’s role in “20th Century Women” was based on Mills’ mother. In both films, there were son characters based on Mills himself. “C’mon C’mon,” filmed in gorgeous black and white and even more gorgeous, capacious humanity, was inspired by Mills’ experience of being a father.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a “This American Life”-ish radio producer who is traveling around the country interviewing kids and teenagers about their thoughts on their lives, what superpower they’d like to have, and what the future holds (the interviews in the film are unscripted, real responses from students). His sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), from whom he has been a bit estranged since the death of their mother, needs him to care for her nine-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), as she deals with a family emergency. Her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is bi-polar and is having a breakdown. And so Johnny, something of a loner who is most comfortable talking to others in the formalized — and one-sided — setting of an interview,” unexpectedly becomes the sole guardian of a nine-year-old for a period that keeps getting extended.

Johny and Viv are constantly on the phone as he needs advice or she needs reassurance that Jesse is okay. Johnny tells her, with mock mansplaining, “You know, as a mother, you’re not gonna understand this, but working all day and taking care of a kid is just a lot.”

There are so many movies that could be made about this set-up, and I think we’ve seen most of them, from cheesy slapstick to cheesy sentimental. Mills has something far more subtle, meaningful, and insightful in mind. Phoenix, known for showboaty roles like his Oscar-winning Joker, gives a career-best performance here as Johnny, and Norman is a wonder as Jesse, making it impossible to believe he can be acting because his performance is unaffected, pure, and in the moment. It is astonishing to learn that not only is he not Jesse from California; he is not even American. He is British and lives in London. His chemistry with Phoenix is so natural we do not just feel they’ve known each other forever; we feel we’ve known them both forever. They are our family; they are us.

Jesse, too, separates himself from the world by processing it through Johnny’s microphone. And, as children do, he processes the unthinkably sad and scary abandonments of his mentally ill father and devoted but conflicted mother through play and sometimes through acting out. Jesse pretends he is an orphan. Johnny looks away for a second and Jesse disappears. They laugh. They get angry. They make mistakes and they apologize. And Johnny begins to understand that you cannot be right all the time with a child and the best you can do is to be completely present, completely open. In its way, that is what the best movies do, and this is one of them.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, a sad offscreen death, and mental illness of a parent.

Family discussion: What mistakes did Johnny and Jesse make? What did they learn from them?

If you like this, try: “Beginners,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “20th Century Women”

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Beginners

Posted on June 9, 2011 at 5:55 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, characters get tipsy
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death from cancer, loss of parents, grief
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 10, 2011

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is engaged in the saddest of tasks, clearing out his late father’s home, choosing what to take, what to give away, what no one will want.  He brings his father’s dog home with him, giving him a tour.  “This is the bathroom,” he says.  “This is the dining room, where people come and eat sometimes.”  But it is clear that no one comes to eat there.  Oliver, a graphic designer, is a loner and in his grief he is even more isolated from the rest of the world.

Writer-director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”), a graphic designer himself, based this film on his own experience.   His father came out at age 74 for the first time and lived an enthusiastic and joyous life as a gay man until he died.  He tells the story impressionistically, going back and forth between Oliver’s quiet, if sometimes conflicted, support of his father’s new experiences and relationships and then his illness and months after his father’s death, when he meets an actress (Melanie Laurant of “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Concert”), falls for her, and struggles to overcome his sense of loss and learn from his father’s ability to give himself wholeheartedly to a relationship.  There are flashbacks, too, showing us Oliver’s spirited if complicated mother (the superb Mary Page Keller), who was married to his father for 44 years.  And Oliver mingles in details of history and even cosmology as he tells us what happened.  It works beautifully.  Mills tells the story with delicacy and tenderness — and with humor.  The best lines are given to the dog.

Christopher Plummer is outstanding as Oliver’s father Hal, who has no regrets about his marriage but is determined to make up for the time he could not be fully himself.  He calls Oliver in the middle of the night to ask what kind of music he heard in a club.  “House music,” he repeats, writing it down, to make sure he knows how to ask for it the next time.  He has gay pride meetings in his home.  He falls in love with a man and invites him to move in, understanding that his new lover will not be monogamous.  Oliver’s reaction is mixed admiration, envy, and a kind of sibling rivalry, and McGregor is an understated marvel in showing us all of that and more, without a word.

After Hal’s death, Oliver goes to a costume party, dressed as Freud.  He meets Anna, who has laryngitis, and communicates only through writing.  A romance begins, but Oliver will have to allow himself to take the risk of loving her, and sharing himself.  At work, even though he knows the client who just wants an album cover will hate it, he has insisted on submitting a series of drawings about the history of sadness.  Can he make sense of his own history of sadness?

Tenderly told and exquisitely performed, this is a gentle wonder, with characters we root for and emotions we believe in.

 

 

 

 

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Interview: Mike Mills of ‘Beginners’

Posted on June 1, 2011 at 8:00 am

Mike Mills is a graphic designer-turned film-maker.  His new movie, “Beginners,” is inspired by his own experience.  Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a graphic designer whose father, at age 74, came out and declared that he would spend the rest of his life as an openly gay man.   The film goes back and forth in time as the father, played by Christopher Plummer, thoroughly enjoys his new life, even after he becomes ill with cancer.  After his death, Oliver begins to explore a relationship with a French actress (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”), both haunted and inspired by his father’s late-life changes.

I spoke to Mills about grief, dogs, and falling in love without talking.

I loved the authenticity of the portrayal of the designer, very rare in movies. Was that you in the close-up of the hand doing the lettering and drawing? It was clearly someone who was both talented and experienced.

It’s me and Ewan.  I taught Ewan to draw a bit.  He wanted to learn.  He’s really crafty.  He builds bikes and  motorcycles and cars.  He started drawing and he was very quick to figure it out.

And when he did not want to do what the client wanted for the album cover — that was very true not just for artists but for any creative person.

Especially when you are in that grief place, where you don’t really want to compromise.  You feel like life is short so you want to go for it the way that seems right to you.  You can be unreasonable and uncompromising and not even aware of it.  It’s sort of a beautiful thing.  It’s a weird gift of grief.

Tell me about your decision to structure it the way you did, impressionistically rather than chronologically.

It started because that was what grief was like for me. You’re walking around in the present, but bits of conversations and memories keep coming back to you. All those emotional exchanges are still so alive, constantly slipping in time. All the assumptions that we assume all day long become impossible to sustain. Incredibly un-complacent and uncomfortable. And as a film-maker, I like movies that do that, like “8 1/2” and “Stardust Memories” or “Annie Hall.” They’re very formally playful. I’m more comfortable if I can work on a story in a more broken-down, multi-viewed way. I’ve got the history monologues, the conversations with the dog. The denser and more multi-platformed it is, the freer I felt.

The dog is wonderful!

Animals are really important to me. I have a boarder collie and it is one of the most important relationships in my whole life. We talk all the time. Obviously, in the movie, it is Oliver projecting what the dog is saying. It’s a way for him to express his feelings. It became a neat, sideways way to get into Oliver’s brain. Dogs are wonderfully mysterious. We don’t know what they are thinking. It’s that otherness that fascinates us. They love us across the species divide and we love them. The same thing with the drawings. It wasn’t me trying to get my drawings into the film. It worked as a way to show Oliver’s emotions. I could go from a memory to cut to a drawing and it made sense emotionally because you’re seeing his reaction, his world.

I’d like to know where the idea came from that when Oliver meets the girl he falls for she can’t talk and can only communicate by notes.

That came from Lou Taylor Pucci, who was in my last film. He plays the magician in the party scene — partly because I got that whole idea from him. He met a girl when he had laryngitis and he couldn’t talk. He met a girl and fell in love in a way that he wouldn’t have if he was talking. He couldn’t be superficial and take the easy route. He got really vulnerable really fast. He told me that story and I asked if I could use it.

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