Parenthood is daunting. People act as though bringing a child into the world is just a checkbox on life’s to-do list, but it’s a monumental shift. It’s more than just worrying about remembering to get diapers at the store or losing any semblance of a regular sleep schedule. Parenthood is about raising the next generation, creating a foundation for a tiny, brand-new human who has your eyes and their nose and grandma’s hair to become a fully-formed person in the world. The catch-22 of it all is that parents never really get to see the totality of what their kid becomes. And when that kid is old enough, they’ll realize they’ll never really know their parents. It’s incredible that anyone willingly chooses to become a parent.
Multi-hyphenates Miranda July and Mike Mills are parents. They met when July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know and Mills’ Thumbsucker premiered at Sundance in 2005 and married in 2009. Both are private individuals, and they don’t talk much about their journey toward becoming parents. Still, the subject of parenthood in their works is not unfamiliar territory for either. After Thumbsucker, Beginners, and 20th Century Women, Mills’ films were written about his own parents. July, too, made motherhood the focus of her book The First Bad Man: A Novel.
In 2020 and 2021, respectively, July and Mills released new movies. For July, it was Kajillionaire, about a quirky scam-artist family living in LA. For Mills, it was C’mon C’mon, a cross-country journey that documented kids’ thoughts about the future. If you didn’t know there was a real-life personal connection between them, Kajillionaire and C’mon C’mon would not be considered kindred spirits. Kajillionaire presents Los Angeles as pastel and outlandish, whereas C’mon C’mon’s version of LA is black and white and solemn. Kajillionaire is about the Dyne family and the next scam that will keep them afloat; C’mon C’mon has the essence of a Fresh Air segment from NPR. They’re polar opposites, yet they have the common thread of parenthood tying them together. These films were most likely born out of Mills and July’s fears, insecurities, and joys of becoming parents in 2012.
July’s Kajillionaire focuses on Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) Dyne, a family of scammers who live in Los Angeles. Their “home” is an empty office building with a wall that leaks bubbles two or three times a day. The relationship between Old Dolio and her parents is manipulative. After twenty-six years of her parents treating her as an accomplice rather than their child, Old Dolio has grown to be closed off emotionally and physically. Her long, sandy-blonde hair covers her face, and she’s perpetually hunched over from years of trying to make herself disappear for the sake of the family’s latest con. Old Dolio’s entire existence is based on maintaining her parents’ way of life. They didn’t treat Old Dolio like a child when she was growing up because they thought that was “insulting.” She learned to write by forging handwriting, and they always remind her that she can’t understand other people because “she doesn’t know anything about tender feelings.”
The Dyne family is $1,500 behind on rent, and their landlord (Mark Ivanir) gives them two weeks to get him the money. Old Dolio wins a sweepstake to go to New York City, and after being mocked for wanting to have a mother-daughter trip, she plans to get the family the money. The sweepstakes are good for three roundtrip coach tickets so that the entire Dyne family will fly to New York with three pieces of luggage. Old Dolio will have traveler’s insurance, and when they return to Los Angeles, Robert and Theresa will “steal” Old Dolio’s luggage at the carousel so she can file a report with the airline. Robert and Theresa are seated next to Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an excitable twenty-something eager to join their heist on the flight back.
Kajillionaire directly rejects the idea that children are a tool or a utility. The film unequivocally looks down on how Robert and Theresa raised Old Dolio. Even her name doesn’t come from Robert and Theresa’s desire to honor someone in their family or choose a name that holds a special meaning for them. Old Dolio shares her name with a homeless person Robert and Theresa came across who won the lottery. They thought that giving their child the same name as the homeless man would inspire him to provide the Dynes with his winnings when he passed. Before she was even born, Old Dolio was just a tool in their schemes. Time and again, they bring up that Old Dolio isn’t of “gentle birth” and that showing her the slightest ounce of affection would turn them into the “false, fakey people” they detest.
Old Dolio isn’t asking her parents to be fake. She’s asking them to love her and actively show their love for her. Only when she sees how they treat Melanie does she realize they are capable of warmth and affection, but they don’t see Old Dolio as someone worthy of that. The issue comes to a head when Old Dolio’s luggage scam nets them $1,575, a little more than what they need to cover the rent. She gives them an ultimatum at her breaking point: call her “hon,” and she’ll give them the entire check. One word, one syllable, and the check is theirs. They cannot do it.
Kajillionaire’s bottled-up feelings stark contrast to Mills’ trademark heart-on-the-sleeve emotions. C’mon C’mon begins with radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) interviewing young people in Detroit about their day-to-day lives and their thoughts on the future. After work, Johnny calls his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann). It’s been a year since their mother passed away, and their relationship fractured, but there’s still love. They talk about how Viv’s husband (Scoot McNairy) has moved from their LA home to Oakland and how he’s having some trouble adjusting to the new city while suffering from a mental illness. Johnny asks who will watch Viv’s nine-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while she’s away. When she doesn’t have a concrete answer, Johnny offers to watch Jesse.
While he’s not Jesse’s father, Johnny assumes the parental role over the course of a few weeks. He naively believes that all this role demands of him is to provide snacks and companionship and is blindsided by the amount of effort it takes to care for Jesse. On a few occasions, Jesse acts out, running away from Johnny and unable to verbalize his feelings during this chaotic time. His world has turned sideways; taken from his mom, he understood his dad was not doing okay and forced him to live with Johnny, a stranger to him. Viv explains that all of this chaos and Jesse’s fits mean that “in his little, inarticulate-kid way, he’s saying, ‘I feel out of control right now. Can you handle it? Can you take care of me feeling this way?’” Johnny’s out of his depth and only sees Jesse’s acting out at the surface level.
Unlike Kajillionaire, C’mon C’mon’s adults make conscious efforts to become better parents. In a heartfelt moment, after a fainting scare at a New Orleans parade, Johnny earnestly looks to the internet for advice about how to do a “repair,” as Viv calls it. He sets aside his ego and is open and honest with Jesse. It’s terrifying to Johnny to be this outwardly emotional, but he sees how essential it is in Jesse’s development. As he’s reading aloud from the internet about not being defensive in his apology, he absentmindedly murmurs, “my mom was good at doing that.” It’s an offhand comment that shows the generational growth in parenting and exemplifies that change is possible.
Perhaps from their own experiences as parents, July and Mills double down on the idea that life is made from the smallest moments when they’re shared with people who are essential. After Old Dolio’s parents’ inability to call her hon, they list other things they never did for her. There were no pancakes, no dancing; no birthday presents for Old Dolio when she was growing up. Melanie, who cared for Old Dolio when she met her, takes Old Dolio’s hand and gets them away from Robert and Theresa. She agrees to call her “hon,” to make her pancakes, dance, and show Old Dolio a different side of life. A side that’s filled with substance and not a pure necessity.
Melanie and Old Dolio are in a pitch-black bathroom stall at the gas station when an earthquake hits. Her parents have conditioned old Dolio to believe every earthquake is The Big One, and she accepts that this is the quake that will kill her. Melanie tries to assure her that this is just a small tremor, but Old Dolio understands that as Melanie is unable to process leaving this life. “You can’t believe it because you were married to life, hooked on it…I don’t have any regrets. You’re going to have regrets, though, because you’re gonna miss sex and dancing and pancakes.” Old Dolio realizes, despite not having had it for herself, that these seemingly nonessential acts are what make people feel alive. When making pancakes for Old Dolio, Melanie says, “most happiness comes from, like, dumb things.”
In C’mon C’mon, there’s a recurring theme of attention and documentation, primarily in Johnny’s work. Giving these kids from all across the country a spotlight for their lives and their thoughts shows them that there is value in their lived experiences. So often, kids are written off or oversimplified because adults believe their emotions are frivolous, something to be ignored. But Johnny’s work is to preserve and celebrate the hopes, fears, and insecurities of young people. The simple act of taking them seriously and treating them as fully-formed humans shows them that they are important.
Outside his work, Johnny uses his audio equipment to pass the time with Jesse. He’s never spent any extended time around kids, and now he’s the sole caretaker for Jesse while Viv is in Oakland. Johnny teaches Jesse some of the basics about recording equipment, and they go around Los Angeles and eventually the rest of the country, recording sounds. Jesse collects sounds from the Santa Monica boardwalk, the beach, skateboarders, etc. As they record these different soundscapes, Johnny talks about why he likes gathering noises like this. “You make this mundane thing immortal,” he says. A piece of immortality comes from the effort it took to make the recordings. While the sounds of the beach or the skateboarders might not hold an immense weight, it’s the process that matters. It’s how Johnny takes his time explaining audio levels, fixing the headphones to fit Jesse, taking him out to the beach, walking with him, being with him. That’s what makes it immortal—the effort.
On the list of things Old Dolio’s mother didn’t do for her was the breast crawl. It’s supposed to happen when a child is born. They’re to be placed on the woman’s stomach and the child will naturally make their way to her breast. It’s a way of strengthening the mother-child bond at birth. Old Dolio didn’t get that, and in an attempt to recreate it as an adult, she wants to crawl out of a dark space. At first, she wants to use Melanie’s closet, but Melanie knows of a much darker place. It’s the pitch-black bathroom at the gas station. Old Dolio complains that they could have been done already in the time it takes for them to go to the gas station. Melanie looks directly at her and says, “Exactly.” She understands that it’s not the action itself that will change how Old Dolio feels but the effort the two put in together.
Old Dolio was never given an opportunity for the journey and the process to give her life meaning of its own. It was just con after con, and the only focus was skimming off the people hooked on life. Even on the trip to New York that she won, she didn’t get to see the city, to walk on the streets. She only saw it from afar. The trip to New York wasn’t a vacation, merely a burdensome step in another plan. No matter how she was raised, though, Old Dolio has a yearning for the life of what her parents call “kajillionaires;” for the simplicity of pancakes, of a family, watching TV together, of being part of something. Not just a cog in a team, but a member. There’s a painful ache that radiates from Old Dolio and her simple desire of wanting to be loved.
There are lines in July’s original Kajillionaire script that didn’t make the final cut. Before Old Dolio dances, Melanie says that this is the last thing they have to do on their list, and Old Dolio asks what they’ll do once they’re finished. Melanie says, “anything we want.” It’s a freedom Old Dolio has never known, and it comes out as she dances. The tinny instrumental “Mr. Lonely” plays from Old Dolio’s cell phone as she tries to make her body feel loose. At first, her moves are short and uncomfortable, with no sense of ease. Then Old Dolio begins to loosen up. Her dancing’s still not graceful, but it’s an outpouring of all the emotions she’s bottled up inside for twenty-six years. Emotions weren’t necessary to pull off a con unless they were being used to fool someone else. They served no purpose, but the more time she spends with Melanie, the more she understands that emotions feel better when they’re acknowledged. This dance is exuberant, angry, freeing, and frustrating. As Melanie watches Old Dolio move, tears start to prick her eyes. She and Old Dolio had a connection from when they met, and Melanie feels protective of Old Dolio’s burgeoning emotions. She wants to give Old Dolio a space to handle everything, the good and the bad, and let those emotions wash over her.
The last lines of C’mon C’mon are a voiceover from Johnny. He created a special recording of the time he spent with Jesse to share with Viv and Jesse. It’s a chronicle of the journey they took, a means of making it immortal. Viv and Jesse are reunited in their home in LA, listening to the recording, and Johnny talks about how upset Jesse got when he told him that Jesse probably wouldn’t remember the time they’d shared. The film’s last line is “I’ll remind you of everything.” Despite all the trouble and strife of their time together, it was an important time for Johnny and Jesse. Growing and understanding their own emotions and learning to express them to other people is a noble effort. Johnny’s special recording also does for Jesse what his work project did for kids all across the country. It shows Jesse that his voice, feelings, and life have value, encouraging him to share them with others.
From all the fears and concerns of becoming first-time parents, Mills and July created profoundly hopeful movies. They took the overwhelming weight of parenthood and brought it down to the barest necessities. Mills and July bring emotions into focus and celebrate the minor, mundane aspects of life. No one is perfect at parenting and “nobody knows what they’re doing with these kids, you just have to keep doing it.” A successful parent passes on love and effort to the child. There is no guidebook to explain how to do everything, and mistakes will inevitably be made, but the purpose of parenthood is to share the best things in life with the people you love. Whether it be pancakes, audio equipment, music, or dancing, something on this planet is worth sharing.
“She says she’ll never know everything about me, and I’ll never know everything about her, that’s just the way it is,” but we must try.