C’mon C’mon – now on VOD – is the new drama by Mike Mills, who writes and directs a lovely, thoughtful, melancholy, insightful, hopeful film every five or six years. Joaquin Phoenix stars, his first performance since winning an Oscar for playing the Joker, and if you want the flippiest flip side of that unhinged role, it’s here in C’mon C’mon. He plays one half of an offbeat buddy movie next to young Woody Norman, an uncle and nephew forced together by something in the neighborhood of fate – and while the elder is asked to take care of the younger, maybe the opposite is also true.
C’MON C’MON: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Detroit. It’s Johnny’s (Phoenix) latest stop, traveling the country talking to teenagers about the future. You know, if the planet will be a better or worse place, things like that. He calls his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who lives in Los Angeles. A year has passed since their mother died, which is also as long as it’s been since they’ve seen each other, or even really talked. We get flashback glimpses of their mother in bed, suffering from dementia; Johnny and Viv argue, shoutingly, and if that’s only sort of a word, the scene between them might authenticate it.
Johnny asks about his nephew. Jesse (Norman) is nine now, and, in his mother’s absolutely unconditionally loving words, is so weird, has very much become his own distinct human being. And guess what, Viv needs someone to watch the kid for a while, because his dad is up in Oakland, and isn’t doing very well, and needs some help, and we get some more glimpses, of Paul (Scoot McNairy) going through what at a distance appears to be a mental health crisis. So Johnny flies in and Viv heads out, and the uncle learns that the nephew gets to be loud on Saturdays, even early in the morning, and likes to pretend to be an orphan while also pretending the adult in the room has children who are all dead – you know, the usual inscrutabilities of a nine-year-old.
Meanwhile, Johnny dictates some of his life into his recorder, like an audio diary, and it can be hard for us to discern where it differentiates from his work. Jesse shows interest in the recording gear, but would rather wear the headphones and hold the microphone, and that’s how we learn that Johnny is alone after the crumbling of a long-term relationship – he didn’t have much say in its ending – and has no children. The situation with Paul elongates, as such things often do, and everyone’s in a bind: Viv has to stay in Oakland, Johnny has to go to New York for work (he lives there, too), Jesse has to be somewhere where someone can give him baths and dinner because he’s only nine. He ends up tagging along with Johnny, who tries his damnedest to get the kid to eat the spaghetti instead of the ice cream, and to get the screen time under control, and to keep his emotions in check when he wanders off in the pharmacy and freaks Johnny out and it was just a joke and you should see the look on Johnny’s face right now. Johnny gets out the microphone: “We made it back. And I was tired. So tired. But he wasn’t.”
Performance Worth Watching: Pound-for-pound, Phoenix is one of the best actors in the game, and in a career that’s been defined by its intensity (The Master, Walk the Line, You Were Never Really Here), C’mon C’mon might be his gentlest work, at least since Her, and most freewheeling, at least since Inherent Vice. His performance here is catalyzed by Norman’s precocity, rendering the Johnny character a tender, weary, wonder-filled, exasperated and loving man.
Memorable Dialogue: Viv shares the golden-bullet secret to parenting: “You just have to keep doing it.”
Sex and Skin: None. Don’t even think about it. That kid is ALWAYS in the room.
Our Take: Mills has used his personal life to inspire his best work – his father, who came out as gay at age 75, inspired Beginners, and the bewildering complexities of Annette Bening’s character in 20th Century Women found root in his relationship with his mother. Having seen C’mon C’mon, it’s no surprise to learn that he’s the father of a nine-year-old boy (with filmmaker Miranda July of Kajillionaire fame), so Mills switches perspectives, from parentee to parent, so he can turn the soil and find fresh wonder in and curiosity for the parent-child dynamic.
Through Johnny’s travails, Mills depicts parenting as an act of sheer determination, effort and intention, although it sometimes requires well-honed skills of great precision and specificity. Knowing when to apply the former or the latter is the question, and the hulking bear that Johnny wrestles, an act Phoenix captures with great heart and humility: Johnny has to apply the broad strokes and merely be present in order to maintain the kid’s general well-being. But he also has to read from a script he found on the internet in order to properly address the emotions of a nine-year-old’s still-developing brain – and of course, Jesse gives the poor guy shit for doing it.
Although Norman is delightful to watch, his precocity may be an issue for some viewers, and Mills tends to elevate the story’s bittersweet emotional drama to a level of literary preciousness, a kind of manufactured profundity in which each moment, no matter how small, radiates significance. But the kid isn’t a terror or a handful or whatever other hackneyed catchall you might use to describe a child who tests your every wit – he’s very much a normal kid who’s discovering himself and the world without self-awareness, which is very much the burden of whatever adult is present to keep him clean and fed and sheltered and entertained and clean and fed again.
Mills forgoes traditional plot constructs, simply bracketing a series of events with Jesse’s separation from and reunion with Viv, which itself is a paean to the singular relationship between mother and child. He understates dramatic developments, because they’re of the type that seem small now but will be far more significant with the passage of time. He also shoots the film in succulent black-and-white, and returns again and again to Johnny’s interviews with young people, mostly teens, who acknowledge the complexities of the world, but always express hope and optimism. Despite its faults, and the hardships it always has and will put upon us, the world is a beautiful place.
Our Call: STREAM IT. C’mon C’mon is a lovely film, beautifully shot, acted and written.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.