In a world of Avengers, Spider-Men, science fiction, and fantasy, small, personal dramas are always what I look forward to the most. So of course I was eagerly anticipating C’mon C’mon, writer-director Mike Mills’ latest feature for A24, starring Joaquin Phoenix Gaby Hoffman, and Woody Norman. The film follows an uncle, Johnny (Phoenix), and a nephew, Jesse (Norman), as they live together and get to know each other when Jesse’s mother, Viv (Hoffman), has to go away to take care of her husband.
Johnny is a radio journalist who is working on a project that shows how children see the world. He’s going from city to city interviewing kids about various aspects of their lives. But Jesse has no interest in being interviewed for his uncle’s project. Instead, he walks around Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans with the microphone and headset just recording the sounds of life. This quickly becomes a major motif for the film — there are things that will just pass us by if we don’t intentionally look for them. Memory is a big idea in C’mon C’mon, and it begins and ends with Jesse’s constant recording.
The themes are effective almost exclusively because of the two main performances. Norman has done some TV acting in the lead-up to this film, but here he announces himself as a young face to watch. The character has a maturity beyond his years, and the actor seems to bring a maturity even beyond that. He’s constantly asking questions or putting up walls that make it unendingly difficult for Johnny to understand him. But that push and pull of frustration, anger, and unconditional love is at the center of the relationship, and therefore the movie. Phoenix is known for his perfectly controlled, yet unhinged performances that go to dark places on the surface. But here he’s tender, sweet, kind, and understanding, and he plays it perfectly. I do think he deserved his Oscar for Joker, but I’d rather see this kind of performance from him every day of the week.
There is a palpable tenderness pervading the film, but it’s beneath a fairly thick layer of tension. Of course Johnny wants to take care of his nephew, but as a nine-year-old kid who doesn’t know how to handle his emotions the way an adult does, Jesse doesn’t make it easy. Mills made this movie partly to explore the way he feels about being a parent himself, and that’s evident all the way through.
The main idea that stuck out to me, was memory. Children and adults experience the world in very different ways, and that’s on full display in C’mon C’mon. It’s a clash of personality that will have you thinking either about your parents, kids, or both, depending on your stage of life. While the film takes missteps along the way, it ultimately succeeds in making you truly feel.