Family concerns dominate the last week of the NYFF
The word “family” has become something of a punchline thanks to the Fast & Furious franchise, but familial bonds—or, rather, their fluidity—was the main theme of two of the highlights of the last week of the New York Film Festival, which ended on Sunday, October 10.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t technically the father of young, precocious Jesse (Woody Norman) in Mike Mills’s latest film, C’mon C’mon. But he becomes something of a surrogate father for a spell as circumstances with Jesse’s mother—Viv (Gaby Hoffman), Johnny’s sister—and her mentally unstable husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), demand that she needs someone to look after her son. This occasions a road trip of sorts as Johnny, a radio journalist, takes his California-based nephew first to his home in New York City, then to New Orleans on a work trip.
Over the course of his filmography, Mills has mastered a discursive style that you could describe as the indie fiction equivalent of a Chris Marker nonfiction essay film. Instead of telling conventional narratives, Mills takes a more intuitive approach, letting character and theme rather than chronology guide the order of events presented onscreen, giving films like Beginners and 20th Century Women an unpredictable feel. Those two films and C’mon C’mon are also all family dramas, in their own ways. If Beginners was inspired by Mills’s own father and 20th Century Women inspired by his mother, this new film is his own reflection on parenthood as a whole: the difficulties of raising a kid not just in general, but in our current socially and politically turbulent time.
That more topical angle gives rise to the one formal aspect that distinguishes C’mon C’mon from Mills’s preceding films. Just as Johnny works in radio journalism, the film itself mixes in nonfiction elements, featuring Johnny and a colleague, Roxanne (Molly Webster), interviewing real children across the U.S. about their thoughts on society today and the future ahead. If anything, most of their impressions skew more thoughtfully and optimistically than one might expect. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, though. The ascendance of David Hogg and X González in the gun-control activism sphere in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018 evinced a heartening political engagement that suggested maybe the kids are all right after all.
Still, C’mon C’mon very much centers on the relationship that develops between Johnny—who’s devoted to his career, but is still haunted to some degree by the end of his last relationship—and Jesse, who may be much smarter than even his mother realizes, but who is ultimately still just a child, subject to the same emotional-rollercoaster whims as most children are. After his show-offy devil-may-care antics in Joker, it’s a relief to see Phoenix back in a more down-to-earth role, and he plays wonderfully off Norman, giving one of the least cutesy child screen performances ever. Many films have referred to the difficulties of child-rearing, but few have actually depicted the challenges with as much detail, warmth, and insight as Mills’s film does.
O Mother, Where Art Thou?
The child-rearing difficulties Pedro Almodóvar chronicles in his new film Parallel Mothers—the closing night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival—are more melodramatic in nature, to put it mildly. A switched-at-birth scenario fuels the narrative and emotional complications. Janis (Penélope Cruz, in one of her finest performances) discovers that the daughter she thought was hers, Cecilia, is in fact the daughter of Ana (Milena Smit, a relative newcomer to movies, and fully Cruz’s equal here), the woman she met at the hospital where they both gave birth.
But instead of breaking the news to either Ana or Arturo (Israel Elejalde), the man who she thought was Cecilia’s father, Janis instead changes her phone number and essentially tries to forget this part of her past. But she eventually finds that the past is not easily forgotten, especially as Ana and Arturo re-enter her life in unexpected and sometimes gut-wrenching ways.
On one level, Parallel Mothers is a tribute to motherhood in various forms. That’s hardly new territory for Almodóvar, whose 1999 film All About My Mother was a more direct tribute to his own mother. He brings the same level of compassion to the complex female characters in this new film. This time around, though, he has a much bigger subject on his mind than just domestic matters.
Arturo is a forensic anthropologist by profession, and in one of their first scenes together, Janis appeals to Arturo to at least put in an application to help bring about the excavation of the grave of her great-grandfather, who was one of the 100,000 citizens who “disappeared” during the Spanish Civil War. He puts that historical angle on the back burner for much of the film as the interpersonal melodrama plays out, but it comes roaring back towards the end in ways that give the personal drama a deeper resonance. Janis’s increasingly complicated predicament in Parallel Mothers turns out to be an allegory for a country trying to suppress a particularly thorny chapter of its history. Just as Janis ultimately must reckon with past mistakes, Almodóvar is, through this film, forcing his native country to pay attention to an injustice that the Spanish government would prefer buried.
Historical ghosts have been a frequent subject of the work of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul in ways both literal and metaphorical. But working outside his native country for the first time, with no less than the divine Tilda Swinton as his lead performer, Memoria—the best film I saw at this year’s New York Film Festival—finds this ever-fascinating artist not so much treading new thematic territory as finding fresh and ultimately mind-blowing ways to explore familiar terrain.
The “plot,” such as it is, revolves around Jessica Holland (Swinton), a translator who is visiting Colombia. Periodic loud thumps, which only she hears, begin to haunt her. For Apichatpong, the inclusion of such loud thumps on the soundtrack—his equivalent of a horror-movie jump scare, for better or worse—feels positively punk for a filmmaker known for lengthy takes and long dialogue-free stretches.
At the very least, though, Memoria offers a reminder of just how plain wacky Apichatpong’s films can be amid the surface serenity. This is an artist who has featured, among other sights, subtitled monkeys and cow ghosts in Tropical Malady, and a catfish pleasuring a princess in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Realism and surrealism have never been too far from each other in Apichatpong’s world—but even having an offhand acquaintance with his previous work won’t quite prepare you for some of the baffling and exhilarating sights and sounds he conjures up in this latest work.
A group of cars erupt in a symphony of honking horns. Jessica and Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound designer, spend about 10 minutes trying to recreate the explosive thump haunting her in a studio. A man seemingly dies for about 5 minutes before reawakening and saying that death was “fine.” Such moments are just the tip of the iceberg in Memoria, all of which take place in the context of a slow-paced film that, if you get on its wavelength, is liable to induce a meditative trance-like dream state in a viewer.
What does it all add up to? I’m still puzzling over that, even close to a week after seeing it at a press screening. Like Jessica, Apichatpong is an outsider to Colombia, capturing the chilly urban landscapes of Bogotá with the same sense of observational realism as he has done the lush greeneries of his native Thailand in the past. But Apichatpong’s films have always evinced a political engagement beyond his aesthetic radicalism, and, somewhat like Parallel Mothers in its own mystical way, Memoria suggests a vast ocean of history being covered up.
That engagement with the wider world, however, dovetails with Apichatpong’s Zen perspective on life, a worldview demonstrated by the sheer patience and soft-spokenness with which he observes even the strangest sight in his films. More than most of the films I’ve seen at this year’s New York Film Festival, Memoria is a film I suspect I’ll be remembering for a long time.