CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White
RUNNING TIME: 108 mins
BASICALLY…: A radio journalist (Phoenix) goes on a cross-country trip with his young nephew (Norman)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Even after his Oscar win, Joaquin Phoenix is still eager to play it cool and low-key, as evidenced by his mellow but endearing lead turn in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, a film which in and of itself is a mellow but endearing affair.
The film sees Phoenix play Johnny, a radio journalist who travels from city to city interviewing kids about their hopes and dreams for the future. Although he’s good at what he does, Johnny is nonetheless detached from the world, having been through some rough relationships and still dealing with the aftermath of his dementia-ridden mother’s death, which one year prior led to his estrangement from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman). One day, Viv calls up out of the blue to ask Johnny if he can come to Los Angeles and look after her nine-year-old son Jesse (debuting young actor Woody Norman), while she tends to her husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) who is having some serious mental health issues. Johnny and his young nephew strike up a formidable bond, despite Jesse’s oddball behaviour – for instance, he enjoys pretending to be an orphan and asking his mother about her dead children – and Johnny’s unwillingness to open up about his own problems. Soon, Johnny decides to take Jesse with him back to New York so that he can continue working, which tests their own blossoming relationship even further.
At its core, Mills’ film is about two people from very different generations trying to understand one another, one from a more innocent perspective and one from a somewhat reflective and morose standpoint (and sometimes, not from the people you’d expect). Between films like Beginners, 20th Century Women and now C’mon C’mon, Mills appears to be a writer and director whose own quirky vision of the world stems from a deeply personal background, which often shines through via an intricate style of storytelling that expresses his real-world influences. With C’mon C’mon, his influences clearly come from not just a section of childhood but also aspects of present-day middle-aged cynicism, which through the Woody Norman and Joaquin Phoenix characters respectively he is able to personify while also venturing deep into certain philosophies regarding the thought process of someone not even old enough to ride a rollercoaster by themselves, as well as someone whose own rollercoaster days are far behind him.
Mills’ stylistic approach is gentle, incorporating quirks such as displaying text messages like they’re subtitles in an international film, naming entire sections of the movie after certain pieces of literature from essays to children’s stories, and shooting with black-and-white cinematography that highlights the stark viewpoints of both our protagonists. Sandwiched in between are extended sequences where we see parts of the audio documentary that Phoenix’s character is recording, with the young kids being interviewed providing a wise and intellectual Greek chorus alongside visuals of life in the various cities going by. It’s an immersive style of filmmaking that often generates an uplifting response, without drawing too much attention to its own personality over the underlying poetry of life as Mills sees it.
Narratively, it is a rather light film to experience, with it being largely episodic moments where uncle and nephew bond and quarrel and bond again that sometimes become repetitive. Mills, however, is a smart enough filmmaker to know better than to simply put his movie in such a loop, and instead uses them to showcase the flip-flopping nature of both lead characters. Woody Norman’s Jesse is the kind of kid you could easily imagine as being a handful, bratty and obnoxious one minute but then intuitive and calm the next, while Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny is learning to juggle the responsibilities of a temporary babysitter as well as his own personal duties, whether it’s travelling across the country to New Orleans for work or figuring out how to maintain his newfound relationships with the only family he has left. Both Phoenix and Norman make a winning duo, free of the conventions that come with the more family-orientated comedic pairings of an adult man with a young boy, and each individually share some nice insight as to what it is to be young and “old” respectively.
As with many of Mike Mills’ films, C’mon C’mon and the style it exhibits may not resonate with every audience member, but as a lightly intellectual drama about two very human characters, it’s a neat little joy that only a filmmaker like Mills could properly bring to life.
SO, TO SUM UP…
C’mon C’mon is a light but emotionally impactful drama about two very different characters, both young and middle-aged, trying to understand each other in a world that already makes little sense, executed to charming degree by writer-director Mike Mills who brings his gentle style to a sweet, if narratively less straightforward, story that’s boosted by the winning duo of Joaquin Phoenix and young co-star Woody Norman.