Pop Culture Happy Hour : NPR | #parenting

The film “C’mon C’mon” is about family. It’s about loss and about joy, and – that’s right – it’s about radio.
Joaquin Phoenix plays an audio journalist who takes his young nephew on the road as he interviews kids about the world. And along the way, the two learn a lot about each other. I’m Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I’m Linda Holmes. And today we’re talking about “C’mon C’mon” on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
HOLMES: Joining us today is Danny Hensel. Danny is a producer at NPR’s Weekend Edition. Welcome back, Danny.
HOLMES: In “C’mon C’mon,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a middle-aged radio guy who’s interviewing kids about how they feel about the world. His sister, Viv, played by Gaby Hoffmann, asks him to look after her son, Jesse, played by Woody Norman, while she deals with some problems Jesse’s father is having. Eventually, Johnny has to get back to work, and Viv isn’t done, so he takes Jesse with him back to New York and to some other places, too. The two spend time talking, and we learn why Johnny and Viv’s relationship has been so strained.
It’s a pretty laid-back movie, I would say, filmed in black and white, kind of a scruffy family story that, for once, even seems to know how radio is made. That might be because Johnny’s colleague, Roxanne, is played by Molly Webster, a correspondent from Radiolab. That is, by far, my favorite detail about this movie. “C’mon C’mon” is directed and written by Mike Mills – not the R.E.M. Mike Mills, as I learned distressingly late in my career…
HOLMES: …Who made lots of music videos early in his career, but he’s been making movies for a while now, including “20th Century Women” and “Beginners.” The film is now available on demand.
Danny, I’m going to go to you first. How did this movie strike you?
HENSEL: Yeah, I really enjoyed it, with some reservations. But mostly, I found it a pretty good portrait of this trio of people, especially that special relationship between the Joaquin Phoenix uncle character and the Woody Norman nephew character. And I think it’s mostly very well acted, believable. I think the kid is fantastic. And it’s nice to see Joaquin Phoenix playing sort of just, like, a guy, like a regular…
HOLMES: That was my thought, too.
HARRIS: Yeah, same.
HENSEL: …Regular person. It’s kind of nice to see him just playing a dude. And then at times, I found the movie just a little treacly. There’s this one moment towards the end that involves a lot of cathartic screaming where I feel like we’re really laying on – this quiet subtext of the movie just really becomes text explicitly in a couple of times. But mostly I found it, you know, a pretty enjoyable watch, a nice way to spend two hours.
HOLMES: Yeah. Aisha, how about you?
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, there – we’ve seen this version of a movie so many times of, like, adult who doesn’t have their life together in some way or is kind of a mess in some way suddenly finds a kid either thrust upon them or, in this case, he actually wants to take on his nephew. But kid enters their lives and changes them for the better. It’s often very twee and not my cup of tea, but for me, this worked so well. And maybe I was just in the right headspace.
But I also think what I love about this movie and what Mike Mills was doing in “20th Century Women,” which is another one of my, like, favorite movies of the last few years, is the way in which he really seems to understand – I’m not a parent, but, like, what I imagine parenting is like and the strain and the toll it takes, as well as, like, how much love and caring and, like, selflessness is involved in that. And he really demonstrates that not just between this relationship between Jesse and Johnny, but also between Johnny and his sister, Viv. And I think that relationship – he’s constantly calling her and texting her to ask for advice whenever Jesse kind of goes awry or he doesn’t know how to deal with it. And she’s just like, yeah, I know. It sucks.
HARRIS: It sucks. But also, like, here’s how I can help you. And there’s a way in which this could come off as, like, oh, the woman has to explain all these things, and it’s the man who, like, doesn’t know how to do these things. But I think it’s done in such a astute and very specific way that it didn’t feel to me as though Mike Mills was trying to get, like, brownie points or anything. Like…
HOLMES: Right. Right.
HARRIS: …This is just one parent trying to coach another sort of pseudo-parent for the time being on what it means to do her job and do it as a single mother, too. And I think, also, the ways in which they handled that relationship with her husband – or ex-husband – I think they’re kind of in limbo. The way in which that relationship bleeds into all these other dynamics, I think, is really, really well done. So I…
HARRIS: …Loved this movie.
HOLMES: Yeah, I really liked this one. I have the same reaction as Danny in the sense that I am a little bit suspicious of the overt emotionalism in a few places. But I also completely agree with Aisha that I think this is so well-executed that I really didn’t find it to be emotionally cliche, even though it’s a little bit structurally a cliche.
HOLMES: And I think this is where Mills really has a great touch with this kind of story. I think it’s made with a tremendous amount of restraint. In terms of the setup of the emotional relationship, I think it is so important that although you do learn that Johnny and Viv had, you know, disagreements over the treatment of their mother when she was sick and that that has contributed to this estrangement between them, they don’t hate each other.
And Johnny is not, like, the screw-up uncle who’s never been around for anything and doesn’t know the kid. He doesn’t hate kids. He doesn’t not want the kid. It’s not forced in that way. Viv is not a bad mom, and she’s not a hero mom. And she just has a complicated bunch of stuff going on in her life.
And I think one of the things I like about this as a sibling story is that, as Aisha is saying, Johnny kind of coming to understand parenting, even temporarily – right? – even in the limited way that he does, he comes to understand her life better, and it bonds them that he understands better what her life is. And even though I know that I have fixated overly in some of my conversations about this movie on how much I appreciate, like, the fact that they seem to understand mic placement…
HENSEL: Which they do.
HENSEL: To be fair, they definitely do.
HOLMES: They do. And, like, movies and TV almost never – almost never.
HOLMES: The reason why I actually think that’s substantively important is that I am a great believer that in a movie like this, having people doing work is a very important way to build out characters. Having somebody like Johnny doing something that he cares about besides just quasi-parenting this kid really helps build out who he is. It makes him seem much more like a real person. So the fact that he has this job that is partly about, like, performing empathy in a way in doing these interviews I think is a really super important detail. And I love the way that the world of work is brought into this film.
HENSEL: I really like the movie’s approach to work, too. I think it gives him a good character, and I think it also contrasts him getting the best out of these kids that he’s interviewing with his kind of inability to parent. In his professional life, he can coach these kids into I think what the movie thinks are great answers, and we can talk about that in a little bit. But, you know, he can get good tape out of these kids. And then when it comes to his own life, he is just kind of incapable of dealing with this kid who would be, I think, a challenge to work with. The kid is certainly interesting. I like that contrast.
I want to talk about the interviews they do, the sort of structure of the movie, which is them interviewing kids all over the country. I think the interviews are good in the sense that you get, quote-unquote, “good tape,” but they do not exactly land for me. I have a couple of different theories. One is that I think maybe seeing the kids talking sort of takes you out of it. I mean, not to defend our profession, but I think the magic of radio is that you can’t see anything. And for whatever intangible reason, it creates this really intimate relationship between you and the person speaking. And I just think that’s gone when you see people, which is maybe an inherent flaw…
HENSEL: …Of including radio in a visual medium. But there are some great observations about radio, which is when they finally get to New York, Johnny says – I wrote this down. He says, you get to keep these sounds. You get to keep them forever. You make this mundane thing be immortal – which is something that, as a radio producer myself, I think about all the time.
HOLMES: I read that Mike Mills got that from Starlee Kine.
HENSEL: Right. I mean, it’s just like I think when you are out in the world and you’re taping things, and, you know, you might get a bird flying by or, you know, like, water trickling, it’s just – it’s a magical feeling. And I think the movie captures that emotion of being a radio producer. And you get so many shots of him and Jesse walking around with radio equipment and just capturing these sounds, and it’s a beautifully audio mixed movie.
HARRIS: One of my favorite sort of details about the film is that so much of the conversation interaction between Johnny and Viv takes place over text. And instead of, like, showing the screen, like we often see, of, like, your phone, it’s presented as subtitles. And when it’s Johnny who’s, like, corresponding, the words come up as he’s typing the words. And I just love those little details because for a moment, like, there might be stuff in the back of whatever he’s doing, but it’s really focused on the words and the language and just the way in which text has kind of really become so big a part of our lives. It’s not just communicated through audio. And I loved that sort of balance between the visual plus the text plus the audio and the sound and the sonic nature of it. It all really worked for me.
Also, to your point about the interviews with the kids, I think one of the things that worked best about the realism of the audio was – there’s a scene where all of the producers and everyone working on the show is just sitting down and talking about the arc of their story or, like, this person they’re going to interview. I felt like I was literally just in a…
HENSEL: Right (laughter).
HARRIS: …In the office. Like, I’ve had these conversations. It just felt so natural and the way in which actual journalists and audio people will talk and try and, like, figure out, OK, how are we going to tell this story? I just thought, like, yes. You all were tripping directly from conversation.
HENSEL: (Laughter) They knew.
HARRIS: They knew (laughter).
HOLMES: I’m so happy to see this Gaby Hoffmann performance.
HENSEL: Oh, my God.
HOLMES: I’ve been a huge fan of her ever since she was in “Sleepless In Seattle” going…
HOLMES: And I have loved watching the direction of her career. And she has such warmth. There’s a relationship between this and the work that she did in “Transparent,” but I love the fact that she’s such a different vision of a really good mom than you often see in films. She’s a really, really good mom who understands that sometimes you have to entrust your kid to somebody else in order to take care of all the things that you have going on in your own life. She’s not always, like, super excited about it. I just think I love this performance from her.
I think all of the lead performances in this are so good. I had the same reaction that you guys did to the fact that, like, seeing Joaquin Phoenix just, like, play a dude is such a treat.
HOLMES: And again, like you said, it’s nothing against the performances that – you know, I loved him in “Her” and all those things that are more kind of attenuated. But to have him just be this kind of, like, somewhat schlubby radio dude, in a way, it’s a different challenge for him.
HENSEL: Absolutely. I want to talk about montage, which is something that Mills has been doing in his last couple of movies. You know, in “Beginners” and in “20th Century Women,” he frequently will cut to a montage of images that relate in some way to what’s going on in the movie, or maybe it’s a sort of monologue that’s going on that is accompanied by a series of images. And it goes back to his graphic design days.
But in this movie, it transforms, and we don’t get those. But we do get – are these texts that are credited onscreen. It took me by surprise, but I found it such an interesting idea to credit these texts that I think Mills means to say are these texts that really live with the people who are sharing them. And there’s one for each major character in the movie.
When you get the credit for “Star Child,” which is the book that is being read to Jesse, that this is a book that will live with him forever in the way that the Kirsten Johnson rules will live with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, that the Jacqueline Rose “Mothers” essay will live with Viv – that he will take “Star Child” with him for the rest of his life – maybe not the exact words of that story, but the ideas behind our purpose on this planet and what life is all about. I felt like it was a really cool way to use his montage style to confer meaning in a way that he had not really done before to certain things that were happening in the movie.
HARRIS: Yeah, I loved those moments. And I can’t remember if he was using the text at this point, but there was a montage moment where we see just this really happy moment between Jesse and his father, Paul, played by Scoot McNairy. That character is struggling with bipolar disorder, and in the plot of the movie, which I don’t know if we’ve mentioned, but he has had a sort of break. And so part of what Viv is doing is she – the reason she needs to leave him behind is so she can help get Paul checked into a clinic to treat his disorder. And to see not just that part, but then also to see just that moment of them being happy and having joy and why he’s so important to all of their lives was just like a moment in that montage. You don’t hear anything. You just see them playing in their living room. And it’s just like that, to me, was one of the moments where I was like – it kind of broke me. And it was…
HARRIS: …Just such a lovely moment because all these characters, I feel, are given these moments to be human and to feel real and lived in. Even when we don’t necessarily know all the details of their lives, we know enough to actually care about them.
HOLMES: Yeah. I think it is so important that there is no bad guy in this movie, that Johnny, who is making this incredibly important connection with Jesse, is not saving Jesse from having bad parents. Or so often you see these, like, kind of surrogate parent situations in something where, like, everyone else has abandoned or hurt this kid, and it’s all on you to save the kid or whatever – or it’s all on the kid to save you. And nobody is bad in this movie. Everybody is just trying to kind of find a way forward.
And the other thing that I want to talk about a little bit is the fact that – the decision to shoot this film in black and white. I was interested in the connection between the film being in black and white and the film having so much in it about sound. I think in a way there is an effort to rebalance the relationship between visuals and sound in this movie by playing around a little bit with the aesthetic.
But the other thing I thought was so interesting about it – and I thought about this again when you were talking about montage – is that it’s easy to look at a film that is, like, very talky. This movie is very talky. There’s not a lot that happens in it other than a bunch of people having a lot of conversations with each other. You can look at a very talky black-and-white movie and think of it as very simple in terms of the filmmaking. It’s the way people think about like, oh, this is, like, one of those, like, chatty, people walk around – like as if there’s not that much purpose going into the filmmaking. But I think it’s incredibly purposeful the way that the cinematography is done, the way that the black and white is done, the way that the visuals are, even, like, the way – it sounds weird, but, like, the way Joaquin Phoenix’s hair and beard look in this black-and-white photography I think is very carefully thought through. And then you add these montage moments – like, I just wanted to take a second to be like, this is not, like, just one of these, like, you turn on the camera and just people are walking around and talking, and it has this, like, grainy, black-and-white – like, blah, blah, blah.
HARRIS: It’s not a Woody Allen movie (laughter).
HOLMES: It’s not like that. It’s incredibly carefully made in terms of, I think, visuals as well as sound.
HENSEL: And editing. I mean, like his last two movies, it’s very creatively edited where those montages only work because you’ve assembled all this footage and you’ve assembled it in the right way.
HOLMES: Right. I mean, and I think that’s that music video background, partly. Like, I think sometimes…
HOLMES: …Directors who are accustomed to working in forms other than feature-length movies or even short films sometimes have a different idea about what the aesthetic should be, what the editing should be. I just think it’s a really successful example of, you know, somebody taking music video experience and bringing it to feature filmmaking.
Well, we want to know what you think about “C’mon C’mon.” Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter – @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to both of you for being here.
HENSEL: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It’s at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about – oh, boy – the new series “Station Eleven.”

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