C'mon C'mon | New York Film Festival 2021


Just over three weeks ago, I left the UK for New York. Since the age of eleven, I've had posters of Times Square on my walls and the Empire State building as my phone wallpaper. If you take the stairs up to my parent's bedroom in my teenage home, there's a photograph just outside the door of my sister and me, arm in arm, smiling on the Bow Bridge in Central Park from my first visit to the city in 2013. A year before that photo, my first nephew was born. When I told him I was moving to New York, he told me he wouldn't be able to visit because he was scared of flying, a fear I have also had my whole life. Often when young people express concern, their age is used to discredit that feeling, but when he shared this with me, I acknowledged him and told him I understood. 

Mike Mills quite literally holds the mic for the concerns of young people in his latest film, C'mon C'mon. Opening and closing with thoughts from the minds of children, from start to finish, it's an empathetic portrait, or in Mills' words, drawing, of the generation we are handing over the Earth to and what we've left behind for them to inherit. 

Woody Norman is Jesse, nephew to Joaquin Pheonix's Johnny, whose voice Jesse has become most familiar with via the radio. Johnny is currently working on a project where young people share their concerns and desires for the future through a set of questions repeated throughout the film. That narrative runs separately to the story of Jesse and Johnny, who are building a bond through circumstance, and consequentially learning to understand the world. 

Mills focuses on how we unnecessarily filter our minds for children, particularly for a generation whose fingertips are connected to the news every second of the day. Arguably smarter than their elders, the digital age has rebuilt young minds, creating a sensitivity and understanding inherent from birth that separates previous generations from the upcoming. Mills dedicates this film to them, particularly his own child who sparked the initial flame of C'mon C'mon.

Much of Mills's work feels like documentary. His previous films include love letters to both his mother and father, and each time he manages to make us fall in love with them, the way he did, too. It's a beautiful thing to be drawn by him on screen. Mike Mills's films are dripping with empathy and compassion, and he has an earnest admiration and awe for the simple act of being alive. He understands the complexities of loving, knowing that we can always only love a version of someone, never truly being able to see all the delicate intricacies of the minds we so want to unpack. Instead, we settle into the ambitious adventure of doing the best we can to learn as much as a lifetime will give us. 

There's a bittersweet nostalgia to the film. Robbie Ryan's ever-excellent eye is on full display through the black and white feast depicted. As an avid fan of Mills, I've fallen ever more in love over the years with the way he uses colour, and so my top concern was how I could still be so enamoured by a monochrome world. Now more than ever, I understand when people say, "I forgot it was in black and white". There's such a rich life happening under the filter that it's impossible not to see the colour in every light, every tree, every frame of this story. 

Mike Mills meets me at moments in my life. The first film I saw of his was 20th Century Women in the one screen Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley when it came out in 2017. I'd just moved to London and made a ritual of exploring new cinemas each Thursday when I had the day off from university. I didn't fall in love with it instantly, but Dorothea, Abbie and Julie settled into my consciousness, and when I came back to it two years later, it felt like an experience that I knew every inch of. 

As an audience member, it is a gift to be held by the hand of Mike Mills. The accidental five-year gaps between his features feel like meetings with an old friend, and it leaves such an ache when it ends because you know it'll be a while before you see them again. There is no one making movies like Mike Mills, no one so dedicated to the craft of loving people and the world they reside in, and making us all more deeply empathetic in the process.

The subtle pang in Joaquin Phoenix's voice when he says to Jesse, "[he] won't remember" this time they spent together sent a new tide to break open the floodgates. I thought back to the moment with my nephew before I left for New York. I told him, "you have to follow your dreams", to which he responded, "you don't have to". 

I thought back to my own childhood and how those memories now only come with feeling, the imagery too blurry to fully realise. When I left the Walter Reade Theater, the world looked a little different, and I hoped that when my nephew reaches my age, he'll remember things beyond a feeling. I hope that for everyone reading this piece, that you fully embrace this world and all it has for you, and that where there are challenges, you'll find a way to c'mon c'mon.

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