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In one of the interviews with American children reflecting on how they imagine their futures that provide a documentary thread running through C’mon C’mon, a boy voices this opinion: “Kids tend to think freely. Adults, when they think, they tend to think in a tight space.” In Mike Mills’ captivating reflection on the mysterious byways of cross-generational communication, the character played by Joaquin Phoenix is liberated from that confining box after being thrown together with his unfiltered nephew during a family crisis.
Premiering at the Telluride and New York film festivals ahead of its A24 release later in the fall, this is another warmly personal family affair from Mills, who drew inspiration from his father in Beginners and his mother in the underappreciated 20th Century Women. This time he’s thinking about his own recent experience of becoming a parent, exploring the tricky, maddening but ultimately rewarding challenges of the relationship between children and grownups within an imagined family.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy
Director-screenwriter: Mike Mills
It’s a wispy yet insightful and emotionally satisfying film, shot with affecting intimacy in pellucid black-and-white by the great Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and graced with a shimmering score by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National that works in tandem with Mills’ eclectic music choices to shape the enveloping mood.
In Phoenix’s first feature role since his divisive best actor Oscar win for Joker, it’s amusing to witness him imploring another character — a 9-year-old boy — to be less weird. Phoenix plays Johnny, a New York radio journalist working on a series that takes him and his small team city to city interviewing kids about the uncertainties of what lies ahead: what scares them, what needs to change, what could adults have done to make things better.
Johnny is a great listener whose work gives him satisfaction, but that seems to be all he has. His longtime girlfriend has ended their relationship and he has been estranged from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) since their dementia-afflicted mother’s harrowing death a year earlier. The cold spell between them dates back further, however, to Johnny stepping into the middle of Viv’s troubles with her bipolar husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), without a full understanding of the situation.
When Johnny calls Viv in Los Angeles on the anniversary of their mother’s death, she mentions that she needs to go to Oakland to help Paul through a difficult patch. Without much forethought, Johnny volunteers to go stay in L.A. and look after his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman).
Jesse is a smart, somewhat odd kid, but crucially, he’s not cutesy odd. His mother indulges his role-play fantasies of being an orphan, responding as an imaginary foster parent to his questions about her dead children. He’s been taught to express his feelings openly and has absorbed Viv’s self-help language, at one point talking to his uncle about “being in your zone of resiliency.” He’s also disconcertingly direct, blurting out blunt questions — “Why aren’t you married?” “Why did you and my mom stop talking?” — while Johnny is reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a bedtime story.
It would be too easy to identify the symbolism of Johnny as the Tin Man, risking remaining rusted in place forever if the Good Witch, in this case Viv, hadn’t put Dorothy/Jesse in his path to oil his joints and liberate him. That essentially is what happens, though it’s more complex, and the benefits go both ways. Mills stirs in excerpts from a number of texts, both fiction and nonfiction — their titles and authors’ names displayed onscreen — that relate to the characters and their relationships in ways that are playful, poetic, even didactic at times, though never banal.
When Paul’s manic episodes detain Viv longer than expected in Oakland, Johnny feels the pressure from his colleagues to return to New York to continue the interview series. With a little manipulation, Viv reluctantly agrees to let him take Jesse, and the fractious harmony between uncle and nephew moves to a new level in and around Johnny’s Chinatown apartment, beyond initial curiosity to a cautious mutual trust and understanding. But that comes also with moments of frustration, anger and even panic, when Jesse acts out or disappears while Johnny’s attention is momentarily elsewhere. Reprimanding himself, Johnny confesses to Viv at one point that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. “Yeah, welcome to my fucking life,” she responds.
The central relationship evolves further still when the radio project takes them to New Orleans and Viv’s prolonged absence prompts hard questions from Jesse about his father’s mental health. Mills’ script is never simplistic, instead grounded in sensitive observation of the ways in which children are actually just little adults, their powers of perception quite different though often no less astute. One of the most affecting moments is when Jesse asks his uncle if he’s going to turn out like his dad.
Norman is quite wonderful; he’s exceptionally natural, his every thought, word and action reading as entirely spontaneous. And Phoenix, exploring a funny-sad, gentle side of his persona we seldom get to see, is always unquestionably in the moment, a man struggling through an unfamiliar process. On one occasion he resorts to consulting an online script for parenting repair scenarios, and Jesse comments that his mom is better at making it seem like she’s not reading. We feel Johnny’s joy and surprise at the tiny pleasures of caring for a child who needs him, which allows him to see himself as a person in a less insular world than the one he’s been inhabiting.
C’mon C’mon is more about the cumulative effect of shared, often seemingly inconsequential moments than any dramatic events within that period. The relationships are drawn with affection and authenticity, which applies also to Hoffmann’s Viv, a woman who has worked hard to maintain an intellectual and spiritual life beyond the boundaries of being a mother and a caregiver to both her son and the boy’s sometimes out-of-control father. The rediscovery of closeness between brother and sister adds another poignant layer. And there’s a lovely ease in the way Jesse moves among Johnny’s colleagues (Molly Webster and Jaboukie Young-White) and their New Orleans community liaison (Sunni Patterson).
The use of the radio interviews — with the comments of kids from Detroit, New York and New Orleans reflecting their distinct backgrounds — serves to place the family portrait within the larger context of young people dealing with different challenges as they figure out who they are. Some of the scenes with the children of immigrants are especially moving. Johnny teaches his nephew to use his recording equipment, and the boy sparks to the magic of sound while also feeling a sense of involvement in his uncle’s work.
Ryan’s nonintrusive lens captures the textures of each location in beautiful monochrome images — gritty, real, alive — that never feel fussy or overly manicured, mostly using natural light or subtle illumination for the interiors. Perhaps the most memorable setting is the wild Louisiana garden where the body language of Johnny and Jesse conveys the extent to which their mutual love has grown, and the melancholy awareness that their time together is coming to an end.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White, Deborah Strang, Sunni Patterson
Distributor/production company: A24
Director-screenwriter: Mike Mills
Producers: Chelsea Barnard, Lila Yacoub, Andrea Longacre-White
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: Katina Danabassis
Editor: Jennifer Vecchiarello
Music: Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner
Casting: Mark Bennett, Jennifer Venditti
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