“Over the years, you will try to make sense of that happy, sad, full, empty, always-shifting life you’re in. And when the time comes to return to your star, it may be hard to say goodbye to that strangely beautiful world.”
The lasting love that an aunt or uncle has for their niece or nephew is not really that hard to explain. It’s a joyous time of sheer fun—mostly because you’re not their parent. It’s a bit of an excuse to play with toys or run around like a mad person, or be a bit silly. If an adult were to give you a side eye, once they see the child around, they understand your position. “Oh, you’re taking care of your niece or nephew,” as they give you a smile and a nod. It’s a wonderful situation to be in as you try to keep up with their insatiable burst of energy—you yourself wishing you could have even an ounce of that same energy to make it through the day. And the best thing about it, is that at the end of the day, when you’ve crashed, you can finally give the child back to their parent. The relatability of C’mon C’mon was all too tempting that I had to watch it as soon as possible, but my goodness, was I mistaken.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny a journalist who is working on a project by visiting teens in various cities across the country, asking them a series of questions like, “what do you think the future will look like?” On the anniversary of his mother’s passing, Johnny makes the decision to call his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman). The two barely speak, and their broken past has been mended with a band-aid versus a more permanent resolution. Viv tells Johnny that her husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), has moved to San Francisco following a job with the symphony, but now she must help Paul move into his new apartment because it’s become “too much for him.” What we soon find out is that Paul suffers with a form of mental illness, which is never fully elaborated on in-depth. At the request of Viv, Johnny accepts to take care of his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), an eccentric nine-year-old, who has a love for blasting classical music on Saturday mornings, and pretending like he’s an orphan. As the situation between Viv and Paul grows complex, Johnny embraces taking care of Jesse as they go from city to city exploring the world through Jesse’s eyes and ears.
Writer and director Mike Mills, as seen in his previous films Beginners and 20th Century Women, has a talent for diving deep into the relationships within our family. He continues to do that with C’mon C’mon and I’m sure he will continue to brilliantly display such chemistry between his characters hereafter. His rich style of making this film black and white, amplifies the depth to which we are able to get to know these people. My fondness doesn’t quite reach the full extent for the characters, so much as it extends for the teens being interviewed. Seeing such events like our social and political climate through the eyes of our young people is a fascinating and different way absorb such content—compared to which we often see such serious subjects being told. Are these young people optimistic or pessimistic about the future? It’s not a simple answer, especially when you hear their conclusions. The juxtaposition Mills places between the narrative and the almost documentary vibe of the interviews, is done significantly well. However, the film’s narrative is where the story is torn into tatters.
If I take C’mon C’mon in its overall form… I can’t say I cared for it much. The performances, apart from Hoffmann’s, Viv, were disappointing. Phoenix may have come in clutch as the unassuming uncle who doesn’t fully know how to raise a child, but I couldn’t fully appreciate him. He was always trying to wrangle Jesse, who was either getting into trouble or throwing a tantrum. Jesse’s completely overbearing and annoying. Watching these two onscreen, which I’m sure some would remark as “charming” in their relationship, made me feel nothing but a headache. This is no criticism to newcomer Norman, who I’m sure plays Jesse to Mills’ direction. I get that the film is supposed to hint at some qualities in Jesse that may relate to his father’s illness, but sometimes, as a director, you have to know when to reel it in.
I can see C’mon C’mon being a great film. Mills was already 65% there. I won’t be surprised if you find nominations for Phoenix, Norman, Mills, or even a cinematography nomination for Robbie Ryan. The film is unspeakably beautiful—one that can make any artsy film lover (like myself) all warm inside. However, the character of Jesse is one of those stories I could have gone my whole life without witnessing. It made me more annoyed than anything. To be honest, I wish Mills could’ve sculpted a gripping narrative around the interviews of those young people. That’s where the story lays, and that’s where the story should’ve been told.
Written and Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, and Gaby Hoffman