Dir: Mike Mills. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White, Woody Norman. 15, 109 minutes.
C’mon C’mon is a great big bear hug wrapped in celluloid. Mike Mills, the filmmaker behind Beginners and 20th Century Women, is a master of intimate, unforced emotion and the kind of simple wisdom that always sounds best when it’s coming from the minds of children. They come out with the kind of gold that screenwriters would spend many a sleepless night trying to chase after.
The children in question are all being interviewed by Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a radio journalist who’s very good at asking questions but not so good at answering them. He and his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) have drifted apart in the months since their mother’s death, but he now finds himself temporary parent to her son Jesse (Woody Norman) after she’s called away to help her estranged husband seek psychiatric help. Jesse is a curious boy, with a wavy helmet of hair and keen, dark eyes.
When he asks Johnny the kind of questions that seem easy for the young – “Why aren’t you married?” or, at the mention of an ex-girlfriend, “Why did you break up?” – the responses come back all jumbled. It’s not that life gets harder, Mills always seems to argue, but that every year brings with it a little less clarity. In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening’s Dorothea laments to her son that “I know you less every day”. That same fear haunts both Viv and Johnny. The sister doesn’t know how to tell the brother that their mother was never as attentive towards her. The mother doesn’t know how to tell the son that his father is in desperate trouble. The uncle doesn’t know how to tell the nephew that he’s sorry for not being around so much.
Sometimes art helps. Throughout C’mon C’mon, Mills has his characters read passages from the books and essays that help them process how they feel – whether it be Angela Holloway’s The Bipolar Bear Family, written to help children understand the disorder, or Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. Sometimes they abandon words altogether and communicate simply by drumming their fingers on the table.
It’s far too easy, in light of Phoenix’s Oscar win for Joker, to think of the actor as someone capable of trading only in misery and madness. But you can’t build a good villain without coming from a place of profound humanity – and Phoenix is always at his best in a role like this. He’s playful and vulnerable, without a hint of vanity. I like when his sentences run as one long, intake of breath. He sounds a little like Winnie-the-Pooh. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan captures Phoenix and Norman in a rich black and white that sometimes evokes the street photography of Lee Friedlander – both familiar and a little magical. The two of them might sit at a table, and be haloed by the lights of a nearby deli counter. Watching C’mon C’mon, you’ll want so desperately to join them.
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