C’mon C’mon. This isn’t just the title of writer/director Mike Mills’ fourth, and probably best, feature. It’s also a mantra for both its characters and just about anyone who inhabits the screen for even a nanosecond. The words are first spoken into a recording device by Jesse (Woody Norman), the talkative nine-year-old whose inquisitive energy powers the film’s engine. Jesse is speaking to no one but himself, but we get the sense everyone around him should hear what he’s saying.
“C’mon c’mon. C’mon c’mon” he says, over and over and over again, the way a child would to entertain themselves when they only have themselves, until the words form a trance that start to resonate. We imagine it is something that has been said to him many times in his short life, by exasperated elders eager for him to hurry up or get with the programme. Now these words feel like they are aimed at those simply enduring in hope of another side, or those smacked by the never-ending whiplash of 21st century work/life imbalance. In short, it’s aimed at anyone in C’mon C’mon.
Perhaps no one needs to hear these words more than Jesse’s uncle Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a likeable schlub and radio journalist who works for an NPR stand-in. If not quite estranged from his sister Viv, Johnny has consciously distanced himself from his sibling. Their mother died, they saw her value as a parent differently. These things happen. Johnny is living alone after a long term relationship went awry. His job currently involves hopping from city to city across the United States to record children and young teenagers as they detail their hopes and fears for the future in an ill-defined project. He is settled into the latter stages of his middle ages but emotionally, he’s in a sort of case of arrested development.
This state of light isolationism Johnny presides in can only last so long, however. When Jesse’s father and Viv’s former partner Paul suffers a mental health crisis, Johnny has to step in and take care of the child. Eventually it’s clear getting Paul the treatment he needs is going to take longer than originally planned, so Johnny will have to take him home to New York for the week at least. If this one glaring blind spot here, it’s in the characterisation of Jesse’s father. Paul only really exists in the form of flashbacks or scenes where the actor’s performance is muted by voiceovers. Considering the complexity of the issue at hand, that of child rearing and mental health struggles, some added interiority for the character would have been welcomed. This is made a tad more frustrating when you have an actor as accomplished as Scoot McNairy in the minor role.
This is not Paul’s film however, it’s Johnny and Jesse’s. Or more accurately, it’s Joaquin and Woody’s. The central conceit is not the most revolutionary; a slightly repressed older man is taken out of his comfortable shell by an overly loquacious little boy. Thankfully Mills adds just the right amount of transgression and naturalism to the set up. For one, Jesse is no inhumanly adorable prepubescent with impossibly cute quotes. He’s precocious sure, but to a fault at times. We’ve met his type, the kind of child who is almost more at home around the adults than his similarly aged peers.
Some may read behavioural issues into his more idiosyncratic quirks. We, for instance, might cringe when he mentions his interest in conspiracies not long after seeing his father tormented by paranoid delusions. Mills, and I think this is wise, never sets out to diagnose Jesse, and it’s equally possible his loneliness translates to overzealous imaginations and acting out. Norman gives one of the strongest young performances of the year here. He has the tricky task of playing a child eager to appear to others as an adult who must also still believably present to us as a nine-year-old. He pulls it off miraculously.
It helps that Phoenix’s and Norman’s palpable chemistry is bordering on alchemy. It’s getting boring now to proselytize about Phoenix’s obvious talent, but this would be another serious Oscar-contending turn had he not just won the thing in 2020. After years of playing very relatable types like homicidal clowns, homicidal hitmen and someone called Jesus Christ, he’s still more than capable at offering a stellar take on the everyday human.
It’s almost jarring to see a sensitivity he hasn’t shown us since 2013’s Her and his ever-so-unkempt, sincerely feeling Johnny is another one of his magic acts. Johnny and Jesse’s touching, burgeoning relationship is never unearned or saccharine. Their bond is both beautifully observed and a sweet statement on the simple, empathetic act that is relating to children on their own wavelength.
C’mon C’mon seeks to be about more than just a boy and his uncle. The many asides involving the children’s interview answers are perhaps a little trite and obvious, but they get the point across. The kids mention climate change, apocalyptic scenarios, and a life of loneliness as their fears and of course these future uncertainties are inherited from Johnny’s generation and comment on his responsibility towards Jesse. Really though, C’mon C’mon is strongest when it uses Jesse’s perspective to ponder the future and all its possibilities.
While what’s to come is on the mind of so many here, the past is also evoked in the gorgeous black and white cinematography. Director of photography Robbie Ryan, surely now one of Ireland’s great cinematic exports, uses the melancholia of monochrome to recall the birth of the modern metropolis. When we see sumptuously achromatic shots of New York and Los Angeles, we are reminded of the era in which the skyscrapers, and our modern cities, emerged. That industrial past creates our present which will then define our futures.
Ultimately, C’mon C’mon is about the way work, tragedy and tribulation so often get in the way of living. Gabby Hoffmann’s excellent turn as Johnny’s sister exemplifies this. Viv struggles to juggle her former partner’s bipolar disorder, her novelist career and home life duties. Johnny too, can’t seem to get a handle on himself as he speedflies through half of the US. Both fear for Jesse’s future based on their manic present. Even Robbie Ryan’s beautiful b-roll shows us the most idyllic traffic jams this side of La La Land, as well as a busy office space lit up like a beacon in the dead of night. Film so often ignores these worlds yet these are the places where so much of life happens.
This could all easily read as a hoary message encouraging us to ’wake up and smell the roses,’ but there’s more to it than that. The grind of today gets in the way of thinking about tomorrow. Sometimes we need someone to tell us this, to tell us to keep going and see what’s coming, to “C’mon C’mon”.