Director Mike Mills’ wonderful new movie “C’mon C’mon,” which opens Wednesday in Bay Area theaters, draws inspiration mainly from his own life, an approach he also used on his previous films, “Beginners” (2010) and “20th Century Women” (2016).
“I don’t like being in a room and just relying on my imagination,” he said during a recent visit to The City. “I like going out in the world and finding things, kinda like a journalist.”
The beautiful, black-and-white “C’mon C’mon” tells the story of a radio journalist, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix, in a sweet, most-un-‘Joker’-like performance), who agrees to look after his 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), while his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) travels to Oakland to tend to her bipolar ex-husband (Scoot McNairy).
“I love Oakland, and I love shooting there, but we couldn’t afford to come up this time,” says Mills. Even so, an overhead shot does feature the actual Oakland, and the director says he tried very hard to find an exterior that would “vibe” with the interior of McNairy’s apartment, which was filmed in Los Angeles.
Mills was born in Berkeley at Alta Bates Hospital and lived there until he was 4 years old, so he has no first-hand memories of growing up in the Bay Area. But he harbors many other special memories that still inform his craft.
“My dad was the director of the Oakland Art Museum; he was there for 17-18 years. It was very dear to him. He always thought that was the biggest thing he did in his life. So me and my sisters always joke that that building is like our fourth sibling,” he says.
Even though he couldn’t physically shoot “C’mon C’mon” in Oakland, Mills said he instinctively felt like the city was a natural fit for McNairy’s character.
In the movie, while Viv’s stay in Oakland becomes inconveniently lengthened, Johnny and Jesse travel to New York so Johnny can continue his current project: interviewing kids about the state of the world and their future in it.
“Those are all real interviews,” says Mills. “They have this fiber to them, a different presence that expands the film’s vibe. You know what I mean? The film’s dynamic is way more interesting because it has that kid energy to it.”
Norman, the impressive young actor — who is hardly the typical precocious movie moptop — provides additional energy to the movie, with his silliness and his unexpectedly pointed questions for his uncle.
“Obviously, my time with my own kid is the seed, but then the plant grows really quick,” says Mills.
One of Jesse’s more peculiar behaviors in the movie is pretending to be an orphan boy, asking questions from an outsider’s point of view. Mills says he took the idea, word for word, from the daughter of co-composer Aaron Dessner.
“And I’ve heard from other parents that their kids do that, too, or some version of it. So the orphan thing is some weird Jungian version that they like to play with,” he says. “I really enjoy finding things like that. It makes my job really interesting.”
In an early scene, Jesse is at dinner with his family and begins discussing, of all things, fungus tubes. Mills heard a report on the subject on Radiolab, and simply asked Norman to listen to it, and then repeat what he heard.
Mills says he didn’t think about it on a conscious level, but the dialogue about the fungi nicely captures the movie’s themes. “It really is a magical situation,” he says. “And it’s familial; it’s the way families work. These interconnected cellular, but independent entities that grow out in all different directions.”
The director decided to employ more nonfiction to the movie in the form of various essays that are read out loud, marking the ends of little unofficial chapters. They include a children’s book about bipolar disorder (“The Bipolar Bear Family”), and works by professor Jacqueline Rose and cinematographer Kristen Johnson. (Mills was inspired by an essay she wrote for the DVD liner notes of her documentary “Cameraperson.”)
“I love the ‘Star Child’ one,” he says, referring to a children’s book by Claire A. Nivola, which causes Johnny to cry as he reads it to Jesse. “I read that to my kid all the time, and he teases me for crying,” he smiles.
“Hopefully when we do the website,” he adds, “we’re going to do a reading room with all the essays and some others that didn’t make the cut. I love the collage aspect of it, the found object of it. They add a lot of texture.”
Perhaps the most important line in “C’mon C’mon” came directly from Mills’ and Miranda July’s 9-year-old son Hopper. The line is not only prominently featured in the film, but it also became the name of Mills’ production company, Hopper Mills.
“I was asking my kid for advice about the film, just playfully. I said, ‘I can’t figure out if I’m being too serious, or should I be funnier.’ And Hopper looked at me and said, ‘Be funny, when you can.’”
The movie became even more personal for Mills due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from a few pickup days, shooting wrapped in January 2020, before lockdown started.
“I edited that whole year. I had to be a Zoom parent. I would Zoom teach until like 12:30 and then go edit, remotely, alone, for like 10 months. I was seeing (editor) Jennifer Vecchiarello’s screen and I could see her in a little window at the bottom, but I also learned how to edit a little bit,” says Mills. “Maybe it benefitted from the process.”
IF YOU GO:
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gabby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy
Written & directed by Mike Mills
Rated R for language
Running time 108 minutes