In the arena of cinema’s most richly drawn characters, there’s a special corner for the creations of writer-director Mike Mills. In depth-of-character alone, he has built out in three features what most filmmakers would be proud to have across ten. Between the charming trio of Beginners and the unlikely family of 20th Century Women, we meet more unforgettable people than we might come across in the next several years. And we’re lucky enough to meet a few more in C’mon C’mon.
The film bears the markings of Mills immediately. It is calm, kind, rejuvenating, relatable, gentle, open, and wise. Once again, we’re navigating life with an off-kilter family of sorts, and the camera is equally invested in children and adults. As he is wont to do so well, Mills constructs interior castles in his characters through self-reflection, conversational philosophizing, and warmhearted voiceover, which he’s cleverly packaged as voice memos and interviews.
C’mon C’mon focuses on an uncle, a nephew, and a mom, though the mom is mostly away handling other people’s problems. That’s why Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) flies to LA to watch her nosy nine-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman). While mom (Gaby Hoffman) is off helping with the seemingly impossible rehabilitation of her husband (an embattled Scoot McNairy), Johnny and Jesse develop a complex bond through the banal ups and downs of living together.
Johnny, a radio journalist, brings Jesse along with him on his tour across America (LA to New York to New Orleans to Detroit) interviewing a diverse range of children about their hopes and fears in regards to the future. Mills mines the occupational detail of the story for all it’s worth, bringing us into the recording sessions and splicing montages of the kids’ responses, which are brimming with the innocence, hope, and tender fear that paint simple, youthful musings with such profundity.
Jesse is chock full of said musings. So much so that he feels too shrewd to be a kid at times. He understands too much, he carries exuberant confidence, and his humor is pitch black — are we sure this isn’t a man in a boy’s body? Alas, he is most certainly a child. Around every corner of startling maturity lies a tantrum freshly emerged from the pits of kid hell. Or worse, a calculated, mean-spirited prank.
But Jesse is ultimately just another emotionally confused kid caught in the trappings of a failed marriage, this one at the hands of addiction. For as much as he’s able to glean, there is so much more that he can’t and won’t until he’s older. And Johnny, a childless fortysomething, has no idea what to say to confused or grieving children, much less how to say it. If it weren’t for Jesse’s mom’s daily phone calls, neither of them would know how to take care of the other.
From a certain angle, C’mon C’mon is a film about two guys learning about motherhood, or the irreplaceability of mothers, and the rapport between them is uncanny. Phoenix and Norman have all but set a new standard in the realm of adult/child dual lead chemistry. In Phoenix’s first feature since Joker, it seems as if the choice to take such intimate work is a concrete refusal to settle with his (Oscar-winning) comic book movie popularity (take notes, Robert Downey, Jr.). And a triumphant one at that.
Mills complements the theme of maternal education with voiceover readings of excerpts from books and essays on the topic. The quotes, like Mills himself, reflect an endearing preciousness toward life. But, just as importantly, they reflect an ability, and a necessary desire, to let go and move on.
Johnny and Jesse, like the rest of us, are confronted with sad but true realities, yet Mills takes a perspective on the narrative that makes sad realities seem simply like new realities that take some getting used to. He has a way of convincing viewers that everything will be alright. Plus, it’s comforting and refreshing to see on-screen characters experience life without Hollywood beats or the unrecognizable hand of god.
The ever-creeping camera movement, paired with dense black and white cinematography, makes for an aesthetically pleasing experience, too. Not to mention the bright, fitful, reverberated piano-driven score from Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National (for whom Mills previously directed a similarly toned black and white visual album).
Wed together, the moving parts amount to a literary style and tone that’s easy to sink into. And while the screenwriting and filmmaking techniques on display mark worn territory for Mills, it’s delightful territory indeed.