A24 Productions has hit it out of the ballpark again. Founded in 2012, it has already brought us so many treasures to be grateful for. C’mon C’mon is no exception. Shot in beautiful black and white, it has the feel of a documentary – of lives of people that you didn’t know you needed to know about.
But you’ll be glad you stayed to meet them.
It might be easy to think “Here we go again. Another bonding movie about an adult male and a cute kid’ (Admittedly, Woody Norman really is a cute kid). But Mike Mills’ superb screenplay and skillful direction take this film to a deeper place.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) has a great job. As a radio jockey, he is making his way around the country with his colleagues, interviewing young people about their take on the world. The movie starts with the sound of their voices. What are their aspirations and dreams? How do they see the future unfolding? (My understanding is that these are real kids sharing, not actors.) Their answers are tender and courageous and wholly heartening. Johnny is empathetic and interested in all they have to share.
But life can change with just one phone call and that is what happens. Viv (a wonderful Gaby Hoffmann), Johnny’s sister, asks him if he will come to California to stay with her son. Her ex is dealing with some mental health issues and she feels compelled to travel to help him. The brother and sister have been estranged since their mother died the previous year. Although nervous, this seems to Johnny like an ideal way to rebuild some bridges with the sister that he loves, and also to get to know his little nephew. If he can listen to other young people, certainly he should be able to handle his sister’s child.
Here is where Mike Mills’ understated direction and beautiful script shine. He could have gone for easy laughs or sentimental dialogue. There is none of that. The nephew is “smart and weird – a whole little person” as Viv describes her son, and he is going to make his uncle work hard to figure him out. Jesse is mesmerized by his uncle’s recording equipment and loves wearing the giant headphones and pointing the equally giant microphone at anything that makes a sound. Johnny is amused by this and probably realizes that eventually Jesse will become the interrogator of his life. “Did you tell my mom to leave my dad?” “Why aren’t you married?”. Johnny is forced to question himself about why he is so reluctant to give full–or even truthful answers–to his nephew’s many questions. And, of course, Jesse’s BS detector is always on high and any answers that don’t measure up are countered with “blah, blah, blah”. Anyone with kids, or who spends time around youngsters knows what the “novice” parent is going to encounter:
“Let’s use the bed as a trampoline.”
“Why aren’t you reading the story like mom does?”
“I’m going to repeat every (single) thing you say to me.”
“Can I sleep with you?”
“I didn’t hide – you lost me!”
“I’m an orphan and you have a dead child, so you can now adopt me (a nightly ritual)”
For Johnny this is all exhausting and illuminating. Jesse is wise and scared (he knows his mom and dad won’t be getting back together) and he needs some clarity or help from Johnny in figuring things out. When Viv’s time with her ex needs to be prolonged, Johnny must now take a bigger step of commitment by taking Jesse on the road with him. Homesickness and fear are now added to the mixture. But the bond between the two has now been forged and they sink or swim together. Jesse did not want to start on this trip, but found in the end that it turned out to be amazing. None of this time is easy, of course, but both uncle and nephew are changed in the process.
Anyone who is used to seeing Joaquin Phoenix in tough guy roles (cackling as The Joker, snarling like Johnny Cash) will be again impressed with this actor’s range. Here, as a middle-aged guy thrust into a new role as uncle/parent, he shines. And he is met head on by his young companion Woody Norman. Their chemistry is beautiful to behold. If you’re not one to see movies about family stories, or don’t like black and white movies, make an exception here.
Or, as Jesse would say, “C’mon, C’mon”.
C’mon, C’mon is available in select theatres on Friday, November 26th, 2021 and expands on December 3rd, 2021.