There is something so simple yet profound about the films of Mike Mills films. Whether it is about letting go of your loved ones with Beginners or finding yourself in your adolescence in 20th Century Women, he has a knack of presenting ordinary stories with complex characters and moving audiences in the process. With C’mon C’mon, Mills brings together everything he’s leaned into as a writer and director over the last ten years and crafts beautiful love letter to parenting, family connectivity, and what the future of this world will look like in the hands of today’s youth. It adds up to the best film of his career.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is an artist based out of New York City. He’s a radio journalist, who is more comfortable speaking to his subjects rather than speaking to his family and friends. Which is a massive reason why he has a stranded relationship with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) and has talked much to her since their mother passed away. But on the anniversary of her death, Johnny calls his sister, reminiscing with her. During the call, he realizes that things aren’t so good between Viv and husband Paul, as he has fallen off the wagon and started using drugs again and needs help getting into rehab. With this, Johnny jumps on the first plane to San Francisco to help Viv take care of her son, his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). And while Jesse is a child, he is a high minded, intellectual kid who as their time together plays out, Johnny realizes they are a lot alike.
For the majority of the film’s runtime, it is an uncle, nephew film, with Johnny and Jesse going from city to city, recording the sounds of the city and interviewing other child for Johnny’s piece about what today’s youth is worried about as it pertains to the future of our world. It takes a while for these characters to connect, as they don’t really know each other than what Viv has told them about the other person. Yet, the more they hang out, the more Johnny realizes how mature Jesse is for such a young child, as he is fully aware of the dangers of adulthood and the struggles facing his father. But just because he is aware of these issues doesn’t mean Jesse won’t lash out in anger and be able to control his frustrations with something he can’t control. This is where Johnny can help him, guild him to the right path. On the flip side, Johnny is a lonely mad, who welcomes the sadness of life. It’s been a long time since he was with his girlfriend, and since his relationship with his remaining family isn’t as strong as he would want it, it is clear he has issues connecting with people. Therefore, Jesse can break him out of his shell and realize that he doesn’t have to be alone to function. By doing this, Johnny not only creates an everlasting bond with his nephew but regains the love and trust of his sister.
In his unintentional trilogy, Mills has made a movie about his father and mother. Though he set out to make C’mon C’mon as a response to the bond he had with his uncle growing us, this is no question a movie also about the kinship one can have with a child, as Mills himself is a father of one. By making this centered around Jesse, Mills makes it clear that the emotions we face as adults are not so dissimilar to that of a child. Most kids can be brutally honest and sharp, yet not know how to handle everything going on around them, thus anxiety builds within them. As Johnny is asking questions to either Jesse or his interviewees, this is Mills pondering the same quandaries to the future of our country and trying to see if they are just like his generation, scared or opportunistic about change. Meanwhile, as this cloud of doubt hangs the hypothesis to Johnny’s piece of work, clarity and growth come to the forefront of this once broken fall, and thus those broad topics are pushed aside for what matters the most, which is the ones you love filling your time and effort spent doubting everything around you.
By doing this, Mills crafts one of the best screenplays of the last ten to fifteen years. Every conversation between Johnny and Jesse is a building block to the emotional catharsis each must face together if they are to grow. Phoenix, whose fresh off winning an Academy Award for his last role on screen, goes back to his quieter, somber yet elegant type of performance when that he is known for in movies like Her and Two Lovers. He’s worried about his actions and words he says around Jesse, knowing the impression he might have on him, and how he really wants to make this relationship with his nephew work, unlike everyone else he’s pushed away in his life.
While Phoenix is very good, the revelation of here is young Woody Norman. This dynamic child actor goes toe to toe with one of the best actors working today and delivers a fully-fledged, delightful performance. Hauling from across the pond, this young Brit also delivers one of the best American accents in recent memory and showcases all the angst to make Jesse feel authentic. And in her limited time on screen, Hoffman is able to bring together all the exhausting emotions it takes to be a mother of a manic child, while also dealing with a husband who can’t see they need help and reflecting on her life before Jesse and the scarifies she made over the years. She is relatable without looking for pity, and by doing so, brings a level of grounded authenticity. Plus, her conversations with Phoenix feel so personal, they fit perfectly together as siblings on screen.
C’mon C’mon might not break new ground and some of the conflicts might seem repetitive at times, but that is the job of living and raising a kid. You get up, go throughout your day with the child, and do the best you can with them and do it all over again the next day. But even though that might sound mundane, there is a lot of beauty to be found. If Mills can make a tender, exquisite triumph like this about his uncle, can’t wait to see his next film inspired by his aunt looks like.
This review is from the Middleburg Film Festival. A24 will release C’mon C’mon only in theaters on November 19.