Gaby Hoffmann and Kathryn Hahn on the Endless Expectations, and Joys, of Motherhood

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

It was a late Wednesday evening on Zoom as Kathryn Hahn, wearing aviator eyeglasses in a dimly lit room, raised up a vodka soda in celebration of her friend Gaby Hoffmann, also cocktailing in a comfortable space. The friends were eager to have an open dialogue about Hoffmann’s newly released film, C’mon C’mon, an intimate portrait of parenthood, written and directed by Beginners and 20th Century Women helmer, Mike Mills.

In the movie, Hoffmann plays Viv, a single mother who leaves her young son Jesse (Woody Norman) with her radio-journalist brother Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) as she cares for her ex-husband (Scoot McNairy), who’s in the throes of a bipolar episode. Johnny takes Jesse on a cross-country trip as he gathers footage for a documentary he’s working on about how kids see the world. But it’s his ever-evolving relationship with his nephew that opens his eyes to the complicated connections between adults and children.

And while C’mon C’mon may center on the transformational bond between Johnny and Jesse, it’s Viv’s authenticity that resonates so deeply. While her brother and son travel from New York to New Orleans, the California-based mom grapples with being apart from her 9-year-old — all in an effort to make sure he has both parents to come home to.

Below, former Transparent co-stars Hoffmann and Hahn lament to The Cut about how C’mon C’mon completely encapsulates the crazy, beautiful, chaotic life of “mom.”

Kathryn Hahn: I was struck by the idea of your character, Viv, being able to hold space for her child without taking things personally. To allow Jesse to have his orphan life, his awesome, imaginative world and to also be a part of it. It’s a really generous, aspirational quality in a mother. I walked out of the theater thinking, “I’m gonna really try to just hold more of that space in my heart,” because it’s difficult, especially the older our kids get, to not take it personally and to hold space for their feelings, even if they’re thrown at you.

Hoffmann: Okay, I’m gonna say something that you’ve probably heard me say 1,000 times in our various Transparent panels. Do you know D.W. Winnicott?

Hahn: No, I completely do not know who D.W. Winnicott is.

Hoffmann: [Laughs] He was a child psychologist in the ’50s in England and his writing is really dense and difficult, but if you can get into it, fascinating. I’ve read a lot and heard a lot from people who are translating his ideas. Alison Bechdel actually writes about him in her graphic novels and Mark Epstein, who is a psychologist and a Buddhist who writes great books, writes about him a lot. And so Winnicott wrote about “The Good Enough Mother” — creating a space for your child where they feel safe and loved. They know that they’re not in any physical, emotional, psychological, hopefully spiritual danger. They know they’re loved and safe, and then you give them the space to figure the rest out themselves, right? You give them the space to fall, to fail, to explore, to examine, to become themselves without imposing your fears, your expectations, your desires, your neuroses, all that shit onto them. And the reason it’s called “good enough” is because you’re not trying to create the circumstances for them to become the “perfect” child by being the “perfect” parent. But, in fact, it’s almost an oxymoron because “good enough” is actually really hard to do. It actually is being the perfect parent by holding back.

And the reason I’m bringing this up is Epstein was talking about this idea in a lecture and he said, “So, in other words, it’s letting your kid have their own experience and being able to withstand their rage. Being able to give them space to have all of their experiences and feelings and their rage.” And then somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, “So you mean it’s being able to withstand your own rage?”

Hahn: Oh, ha. Ha. I’m going to start crying.

Hoffmann: To me, everything about parenting boils down to this. We can take that word “rage” and basically plug in any other word. It’s being able to not take it personally, it’s being able to not blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So when you describe that moment with Viv, that’s what I think of. She is “The Good Enough Mother” who can do all that’s necessary, including leaving her kid to go take care of his dad, so that he has a dad. Without input, without imposing herself into that space — like her own heartbreak, her own disappointment, her own rage.

Hahn: There’s another moment that I can’t get out of my head, which is also in the trailer, which is where you are rocking out with Jesse. And you see your whole body and your whole cellular being is feeling the music. I love that as a parent, to be able to see Viv holding on to herself in the presence of her child. Also, that there is no performance, there’s no, “This is how you do it.” They are enjoying something together so purely, it just moved me so much — seeing Viv enjoying herself in the mess of being a single mom in that situation.

Hoffmann: I was thinking especially as a single mom who also has a career. There’s no other place for her. She has to be her full self all the time with her kid because she can’t compartmentalize. I want to be my full self with my kid. But I have a full-time, stay-at-home partner who can be with the kids if I need to go in the other room or go off and have a dance party with my friends. She is not offered that time and space and so she has to be in that space in order to survive this fully and be the woman and mother she wants to be. Some of the greatest, I think, portraits of mothers in film are single mothers who are really trying to get through the day and get through life with their kid as their partner in crime.

Hahn: Of course she would want to make it a better life for her son. She doesn’t want her son to be without a father. My mind started to imagine what Jesse had seen to make up those stories and Viv was so transparent, no pun intended, about what reality is. I remember somebody saying to us about my daughter, “You just have to let the reality be the reality.” And I was like, right, because it’s so easy to gaslight a child — just to put a little teeny lens filter in front of them. There’s a little tiny trust knick that happens in the relationship. And so that’s something that I always try to tell myself, especially the older they get, is just let the reality be the reality. And it turns out they need you more the older they get.

Hoffmann: I don’t work as much because my kids are younger, but everybody always says to me when I have these kinds of conversations, “Oh, but once they’re older …” I actually think they just need me more and more.

Hahn: I’m saying no more the older they get. I feel like I’ve got a few years left with them and I’m being very specific about what a project would be and the reasons are becoming more them-focused. They would come with me everywhere when they were little. Like, I was in Revolutionary Road and I remember seeing a take where one boob was bigger than the other because I clearly nursed my child beforehand. And then what happens is their social life becomes very important and missing a day or two of school becomes really tragic. And so I would have to go solo and then travel back and forth myself. And, I mean, there is really nothing more depressing than being in a foreign grocery store without your kid and just getting stuff for yourself.

You’re like, “My kids are born into a circus family,” and that’s just what it is. They’re circus kids. So we travel around and mom travels around. It’s a different genderlike situation for me because my husband, Ethan [Sandler] is here all the time. He made me my cocktail tonight! We’ve just got our situation.

Hoffmann: That’s our situation too and thank God. It works beautifully when it works. The biggest question I have about what we do is what this movie is about — how to be a good parent, which is also obviously about how to take care of yourself as a person and be fulfilled, be engaged, be inspired, be whatever it is you need to be out in the world so you can be who you need to be at home. And that crazy balance is confusing and hard for anybody. We’re so privileged and lucky that we have the lives we have, of course.

The bullshit of “you can have it all as a woman.” Sure, but no. It’s the balance. The delicate, weird, ballet opera of how to make a family sing when everybody’s needs are really different, but all equally important. You think the kids’ needs outweigh the parents’ but once that starts happening, everything gets fucked up because if the parent is not really functioning at a healthy, balanced level then the kids get fucked up. It’s truly this crazy, complicated dance, and I haven’t figured it out.

Hahn: My kids are much older than yours, and I’m still trying to figure it out. I remember looking at the eighth graders and being like, “They will never be in eighth grade.” Like, childhood lasts forever. And I look at them now and I’m like, oh, that part is over for them. And so it’s such a weird, short amount of time of — I don’t know what word it would be except for, like, mishegoss. I’m just trying to work with, like, heart softening around them so they don’t feel all my neuroses around being the working parent. I’m just trying to be a good listener, which goes back to this beautiful film, which is all about listening to children. Being present and sitting and giving them the space.

Switching tangents, but I feel okay when I talk to kids. Like, with this generation we’re going to be okay. I just feel like this is a special group of human beings that’s been born in the last decade and a half, and I have a lot of hope about it.

Hoffmann: [Returns to frame] Um, I heard every word you said and I went downstairs to get my plug because my computer’s dying and the thing popped out so now I have to go back downstairs.

Hahn: We’re almost out of time anyway! Wait, Gaby, do you know that this woman moderating has a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old? So she’s also in the depths of it. Meanwhile, my sweet teenager is like, “Can we go for a drive tonight?” And what he means is he just wants me to drive him around so he can listen to his music as loud as he possibly can and just stare out the window.

Hoffmann: Why can’t he listen to his music as loud as he can at home?

Hahn: He can, he just likes hearing the bass in the car and driving by stuff.

Hoffmann: And do you like that? Do you do that regularly?

Hahn: Yeah. I just kind of zone out, and we talk about stuff, or sometimes it’s just the music.

Hoffmann: Wait, what is the music? What kind of music?

Hahn: Well, I’ll just tell you this, which really made me feel old: Someone he is really into is “the old Kanye.” And then also Mac Miller, who I did not know at all. I just knew him as a person who had a tragic demise, but his music is really beautiful.

Hoffmann: I won’t know anything that’s happening in the world until my kids are 15.

But, it does feel like C’mon C’mon is one of those movies that could actually fall into the confines of what we’ve established as our family culture around media, which is slow, thoughtful, not overly stimulating screen time. The thing isn’t imposing itself so much onto you that you don’t have a second to have your own experience of it. Like, that is so much what I love about this movie because I want that as an adult too. I want time and space to be in conversation with myself and have my own reactions and to not have every question answered for me immediately or every idea forced down my throat.

Hahn: I love that because that’s what I felt like watching it and how my son responded to it. He had seen Joker, I know he had, and that’s so different, obviously, and to see Joaquin with this soft belly, soft heart …

Hoffmann: It’s really about the belly, let’s be frank.

Hahn: It’s so about the belly. The belly’s so beautiful. I love the soft belly. And I was so happy to have this …

Hoffmann: Belly.

Hahn: Yes. I was so happy for the young boys to see that belly. I think it was very important to see Johnny taking advice from his sister and to see them be so open to forgiveness to each other. Just examples of goodness. I felt very, very proud to take my 15-year-old son to that premiere.

C’mon C’mon is now in select theaters and will be available on demand on 12/23. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gaby Hoffman and Kathryn Hahn on the Joys of Motherhood