Director: Mike Mills
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffman
America is uncertain. Between the omnipresent ills of climate change, class disparity and race relations, it is a nation that seems strung-out, worried, over-caffeinated and quick to anger. Mike Mills’ latest film acts in the main like a small and personal human drama, which it is. But it uses the machinations of the indie dramedy to poke at a collective sense of doubt. Roving radio interviewer Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) applies pressure to this source of anxiety by asking his school-age studies, “When you think about the future, how do you imagine it’ll be?”. The concern and uncertainty in their unscripted answers speaks to this greater sense of nervousness…
It’s easy to find your heckles raised when the film begins. A black and white A24 movie that is self-consciously cute and stylised, fore-fronting privileged and vaguely bohemian middle-class white characters. It all comes off a little too New Yorker-y. A little too Best Original Screenplayish. And it takes time for you to work out what it is, really. It shuffles into it’s story casually, like it fell upon it, or bumbled into it. In a landscape of rigidly defined IP, C’mon C’mon seems – beyond it’s aesthetic choices – stubbornly nonchalant.
But then, Mills slowly hones his focus, and the things that seemed blurry come into sharper and sharper definition.
Johnny is on the road, interviewing children from some nebulous radio program he’s working on, when he gets a call from his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), in need of a little assistance. He flies out to Los Angeles to visit, in the process becoming reacquainted with his precocious 8-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). Viv needs to take off to look after Jesse’s ailing father Paul (Scoot McNairy adding another marginal appearance in a beloved indie to his resumé). Cresting toward middle-age and having never been married, the prospect of looking after a child is completely alien to Johnny. But it’s family, so whatcha gonna do, right?
Fascinated and terrified by his new ward in equal measure, Johnny documents the task with his sound recording equipment, as he does most things in his life. He finds it awesome to do so, immortalising the everyday, but there’s also a sense that he’s creating his own baggage – something given visual credence through flashbacks to his last days with his dying mother (Deborah Strang) and the way he talks about a failed relationship.
The past is important in C’mon C’mon (acid-tinged insinuations about his involvement in the fallout between Viv and Paul leave an ill-defined sour taste), but the future is more pressing. The interviews with the high school kids underscore this most clearly, but it is there too in the growing bond between Johnny and Jesse. Jesse is the future, and Johnny is both panicked by it and protective of it. On two instances Johnny loses sight of Jesse altogether, and the film ably accelerates into a tone of immediate panic that is all-too-knowable.
It is also, in it’s own way, a road movie, celebrating some of the great cities of America. When we first meet Johnny, he is interviewing in Detroit, and the kids speak candidly about how the former titan of industry is now perceived as a poor and rusted shell of it’s former self. We get some time in the open spaces of Los Angeles, of course, when Johnny stays with Viv and Jesse. But then, when life and work start to conflict, Johnny takes Jesse back with him to the claustrophobic bustle of New York and the geography of the film is reconfigured again. Then, finally, we deviate to New Orleans; all hot afternoons and standing water.
Mills and his DP Robbie Ryan capture these cities with the kind of artful observational eye one might find in a high-end coffee table book, capturing the essence of street life while also itemising the diverse and handsome architecture that gives each its unique definition. Plentiful drone photography of their varying cityscapes highlight this countrywide sense of pride. For a film so concerned with where we’re headed, it also grounds C’mon C’mon in the now. Like Johnny’s recordings, it presents a document of a specific moment, albeit on a much wider scale.
Still, the heart of the piece is the evolving relationship between it’s two leads. Having weathered the PR storm of Joker, Phoenix seems to have relaxed gratefully into this part, and gives one of his more effortless performances in years. Which is not to say that he coasts, but that he inhabits Johnny cosily. It might be one of his finest yet. And, with his dogged uniform of white shirt and black pants – that he even wears to the beach – there’s something pleasingly Chaplin-esque about Johnny. It’s a role with a kind of lineage.
His young co-star, Woody Norman, is a small wonder, too. Though Jesse is sometimes overwritten (how many 8-year-olds use the world “resilience”?), Norman makes him a bright and charming person to be around, only occasionally veering into the kind of irksome territory that child actors are so capable of finding. But, even then, this is usually what C’mon C’mon is wryly trying to observe; even kids are dicks sometimes.
So for all it’s anxiety about where we’re heading, the body of C’mon C’mon is about being present in the moment. It charts the course of a few weeks between two people. It is heart-warming and funny and a little sad, but it avoids token sentimentality and stays – for the most part – on the right side of cute. As blurry as it seems on first approach, it leaves you with a defined sense of optimism. Maybe the future isn’t awful? That’s quite a nice little gift to get.