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Years before #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, and Brett Kavanaugh, long before the phrase “toxic masculinity” morphed into a viral catch-all for unseemly male behavior, filmmaker Mike Mills had been quietly spelunking the darker regions of insecurity, fragility, and tenderness in straight men. From Thumbsucker (2005) to Beginners (2010) to Twentieth Century Women (2016), sensitive male characters reckon with who they are when who they are doesn’t seem to measure up.
As Mills’s filmography consistently makes clear, men, or at least straight, white, American men — the demographic that, arguably, has the most economic and social power of any in the world — have never fully learned how to understand themselves, express themselves, and indeed even be themselves. But rather than resort to the (implicitly misogynistic) presumption that men must learn how to be men from other men, or a male pity party to the tune of the world’s tiniest violin, Mills has veered the opposite direction. He is the rare director and writer whose personal humility feels patently present onscreen — in the way he develops complicated characters, female and male, and the challenges of being vulnerable in a world that shuts many of us down. He is also that rare filmmaker whose cinematic output feels consistently feminist even though his protagonists are usually male.
This feminist approach to challenging tired masculine norms is prominent in his latest feature, C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a middle-aged public radio host à la Ira Glass. Single, lonely, and recovering from the death of his mother, Johnny is suddenly called by his younger sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), with whom he has not had regular contact, we gather, for quite some time since their mother’s passing. Viv is in a crisis: her bipolar husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), has suffered a manic breakdown and needs her full-time attention. “Can you take him?” she asks Johnny of her nine-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), believing that it will only be a matter of days. But this short stint soon turns into weeks. Johnny becomes Jesse’s full-time caregiver, bringing him along for his radio interviews in New York and New Orleans. “I don’t know what I’m fucking doing,” Johnny vents to Viv after one of many conflicts with Jesse, a child whose idiosyncrasies are as abundant as his charms. “Does anyone know what they’re doing with these kids?” she responds.
In this case, “these kids” could mean any child of Jesse’s age, or the specific subset who, like him, seem at once preternaturally wise and socially ill-equipped. Jesse is, significantly, never explicitly pathologized in the film, but he exhibits the insomnia and environmental sensitivity that could suggest a number of future diagnoses. That said, his alertness to his environment is also a boon; he cottons to Johnny’s recording mic and captures the ambient sounds and voices on the beach near Los Angeles and under New York’s Manhattan Bridge.
“Jesse is based in a lot of ways on my kid, who is weirdly, very interestingly, very emotionally intelligent,” Mills shared with me the day before C’mon C’mon’s release. “A lot of kids are these days, compared to my childhood in the ’60s. They have such better language, so many more resources, and so much more room to be all these versions of yourself, and to know yourself.” This heightened sense of self-awareness — and of the crises we face as a human species — is on full display in the NPR-style Q&As that Johnny conducts with middle-school children in Detroit, New York, and New Orleans. “I don’t think the world’s going to end,” reasons a preteen girl. “But I do think it’s going to get a lot dirtier, and more polluted.” When asked if he thinks that adults understand what children his age are going through, a solemn boy says, “I think the moms do. I think they know what we’re going through.”
In C’mon C’mon, both Jesse and Johnny emotionally evolve in relation to each other, but also to Viv, who can shift from ebullient to beleaguered and back again in the course of a phone conversation. “They are constantly triangulating off of the mom, Vivian, who is like the sun of the film,” Mills reflected. “The other planets are moving around. And, all the men and boys in that movie are tied to her.” Rather than suggest that women are responsible for civilizing the males in their lives, the films seem to say that men are responsible for listening to women and being receptive to their emotional intelligence.
At many moments of C’mon C’mon, Jesse and Johnny are equally perplexed at how to respond to the ever-changing set of conditions surrounding Paul’s mental health, Johnny’s professional demands, and the challenges of moving from one coast to the next, and yet Jesse often has superior language for expressing his feelings. In one of the film’s most hilarious and moving scenes, Johnny reads from a “Repair” script from his iPhone screen in order to properly apologize to his nephew for losing his temper earlier that day. While Johnny fumbles with admitting that he feels “shitty, stupid, and sad,” staring out into space and at the ceiling, it’s clear that Jesse has been through this process before, anticipating his uncle looking “into his eyes” by widening them comically at the climax of the apology.
Crying itself — specifically male crying — is something of a motif in the film. “You’re crying,” taunts Jesse playfully when Johnny sighs after reading aloud Claire A. Nivola’s children’s book Star Child. “No I’m not,” is the knee-jerk response, as Johnny slowly checks his own eyes. In a later scene, Jesse admits his embarrassment at crying when left by Johnny with a babysitter. Within the documentary sections of the film, a middle-school boy with crooked teeth and oversized spectacles confides that his mother “says, ‘Be strong. Stop crying.’”
“I don’t know what all this means,” Mills confessed to me regarding the recurrent theme of masculine vulnerability in his films. “But obviously, I’m a guy and I’ve been dealing with guyhood for my whole life. In relationship to women, I feel like I’m always presenting a slightly altered version of a heterosexual manness.” With Beginners (based on Mills’s own experience with his father), queerness, and queer space, were the factors that helped protagonist Ewan McGregor get to know his own heterosexual masculinity. In Twentieth Century Women, what Mills calls a “female- or other-centered version of masculinity” flourishes for the young man coming of age, surrounded by an intergenerational network of women. In C’mon C’mon, a middle-aged man becomes more secure in himself as he connects with his sister and nephew. “The spectrum of Joaquin’s masculinity is awesome to me,” Mills continued. “He can be very vulnerable, funny, emotional, and sensitive, but then also strong, crazy, and unworried. He has a bigger spectrum than I do, and I admire that.”
C’mon C’mon seems to propose that, in order to become a better straight man, to resist the toxicity that is not a biological given but gradually acquired, men need to learn from anyone but their own demographic. “The culture I grew up in, especially around masculinity, is just how you’re not supposed to be yourself over and over and over and over and over. If you grew up … in a world where your authenticity and your emotions weren’t allowed, or if you got punished, rejected, pushed away if you said them, you’re trained not to be yourself deeply. Then how do you grow up and try to be yourself? You could say that question is at the heart of all my movies.”
C’mon C’mon is currently in theaters.
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