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Review: C’mon C’mon

November 26, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

C’mon C’mon, the latest film from writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women), opens with documentary-style interviews with kids talking about the future. The film’s protagonist, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), is a radio journalist in New York, and he is working on a project compiling comments from children about their hopes and fears in a changing world.

These interviews, and the themes that are brought up, provide a through line for the film, which blossoms into a wonderful road movie between Johnny and his 9-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). And it’s a magical experience, with Mills crafting a film that is filled with many warm, moving and gently funny moments as it explores their unique uncle-nephew relationship.

Jesse lives in Los Angeles with his mother Viv (Gaby Hoffman), and when she suddenly has to go away to help his bipolar father Paul (Scoot McNairy) get settled in Oakland, Johnny agrees to travel across the country to stay with the boy. Jesse is an eccentric kid who rarely stops talking (he sometimes likes to pretend he is an orphan and have others play along), and he is testy and impatient at times, while also revealing moments of beyond-his-years wisdom. When Johnny has to return to New York for work, and Viv needs to stay in Oakland to help with Paul’s mental health issues, he decides to bring Jesse along with him.

From here, C’mon C’mon simply follows the two of them through the ups, downs and little moments as they learn to understand each other, with Mills capturing the bond that forms between them in a really organic way. Their dynamic is an interesting one, as the unmarried, childless Johnny is suddenly thrust into a parenting role. He struggles to find answers to tough questions that Jesse asks about his father’s mental illness, or why Johnny and Viv don’t talk as much as they used to. While he has flashes of insight, Jesse is still very much a child, with moments of acting out and testing boundaries, and figuring out how to care for him and meet his needs helps Johnny emotionally open up.

The two are learning from each other and helping the other one grow, and it’s a relationship that works thanks to the performances at the heart of the film. What’s remarkable about Phoenix’s performance here is how natural he feels. It’s in an entirely different register than his chilling, Oscar-winning turn in Joker, reminding us how good he can be at playing regular guys as well. While Johnny is maybe a bit closed off, he is still very much just an average man trying to navigate caring for a child, and Phoenix brings him to life in a way that feels completely believable.

Norman gives one of the finest performances by a child actor in recent memory, never hitting a false note in his portrayal of Jesse. He is inquisitive and playful in a way that seems totally natural, and the character’s precociousness doesn’t feel exaggerated for the screen. Hoffman also delivers emotionally impactful work as Viv, crafting both an authentic portrayal of a struggling mother and establishing a compelling adult sibling relationship with Phoenix’s Johnny, despite most of their scenes together happening over the phone.

The story might sound slight, and the film does meander, but it’s richly textured and filled with feeling in a way that manages to avoid being twee. The black and white cinematography by Robbie Ryan adds both artistic grace and a sense of intimacy, at times making the film feel like a memory, which really hits home in the deeply poignant final scenes. The emotions of the film are heightened by the musical contributions of Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, who provide a memorable score that incorporates classical elements as well.

Through its literary interludes and poetic uses of voiceover, Mills’ beautifully written screenplay comes to explore themes about remembering and expressing our emotions in healthy ways. The filmmaker also seamlessly weaves in some flashbacks showing how Johnny and Viv started to grow apart following the death of their mother, which helps to flesh out the story and makes the improving relationship between their two characters that much more resonant to watch.

I don’t have kids, but I imagine C’mon C’mon to be a very accurate depiction of trying to parent one, while having no clue what you are doing and yet somehow still succeeding. This is just a really lovely, tender and touching film, with wonderful performances by Phoenix and Norman, who not only make the bond between their characters feel real but also make us deeply care about them by the end. The result is a small, intimate drama that builds to a finale that might just make you cry. I was enraptured from start to finish.

C’mon C’mon is now playing in limited release in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa, and will be expanding to additional markets on December 3rd. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

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