Children gravitate towards adults at a young age because they see something comforting and inviting. Spending a great deal of time with an aunt or an uncle or a parent’s close friend can build a close relationship between a child and someone with far more life experience. When the opposite is true and a child barely knows an adult, warming to them can take considerably longer and be a prickly process. Mike Mills’ captivating film C’mon C’mon tracks the progression of one such dynamic while simultaneously exploring the more complicated between two adults.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) spends his days traveling from place to place with a large microphone in hand and headphones over his ears, recording children as he asks them questions about their perspectives. He adds an unexpected companion to his regular routine when he steps in to take care of his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), when his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) must leave to try to help Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), whose mental illness has worsened. The precocious Jesse follows Johnny around, holding his equipment and soaking up the way he lives, turning the microphone on his uncle occasionally to get a glimpse into why he’s never before spent time like this with his mother’s brother.
This lighthearted drama is shot entirely in black-and-white, which helps to underscore the impact of Johnny’s work. He is specifically asking those who are young and often ignored what they think about the future, inviting them to share the opinions they are rarely asked for so that they can be heard and preserved. Were it not for the cell phones that its characters use to communicate, this film could easily take place decades earlier. Modern technology does exist – reference to Jesse’s screen time is also made – but the heavy-duty set-up Johnny carries around is meant to enhance the presence of nature around him rather than distract from it, creating a hypnotic environment where time seems to slow down.
Phoenix won an Oscar just two years ago for tapping into the maniacal intelligence of the title character in Joker, and he’s also well-known for his involved performances in films like Gladiator, Walk the Line, and The Master. As Johnny, he’s marvelously subdued and natural, carrying himself in a calm, easygoing manner. He takes on this newfound responsibility with only minimal protest, seeing the burden he can alleviate for his sister, and rarely loses his patience with Jesse, even when he runs away just to make him crazy. There is a less patient side of Johnny that emerges in flashbacks to clashes in caregiving between Johnny and Viv for their ailing mother, but those scenes are shown mostly without audible dialogue, indicating that Johnny has since learned to better control his emotions.
Opposite Phoenix is the exceptional Norman, who, now twelve years old, has been acting since a young age. He portrays the contradictions of youth brilliantly, playing Jesse as someone more than capable of taking care of himself and pushing his limits, eager to lecture Johnny on how he shouldn’t have given him so much sugar at dinner after earlier lying to him about how his mom would have said it was okay. He also can’t help but cry after a hard day but acknowledges that he should have been able to hold it in since it doesn’t conform with the mature image he otherwise projects, and he insists on playing a game where he pretends to be an orphan and asks his mother and uncle to tell him about their fictional dead children. Phoenix and Norman are a joy to watch together, and Hoffmann, best known for her fantastic work on Transparent, complements them as a de facto single parent who has created a truly unique rapport with the son who means everything to her.
Mike Mills has, in his most recent projects, shown a true affinity for and mastery of familial relationships. Beginners centered on an adult man grappling with his elderly father’s sexual rediscovery, while 20th Century Women explored the influence of women on the shaping of a young man’s character. This film joins those as another memorable, involving look at people and the way they behave around other people, offering a stirring snapshot of a piece of their lives. The combination of cinematography, editing, and subtle music works marvelously to create a compelling, endearing, and resonant viewing experience.
C’mon C’mon is screening at Film Fest 919 and will be released on Friday, November 19th.