A man reflecting on the life of his recently deceased father as he tries to pull his own life together. The story of a teenage boy and the group of women, including his free-spirited single mother, who raised him. Writer/director Mike Mills’ most recent feature films, 2010’s “Beginners” and 2016’s “20th Century Women,” are filled with empathy for the characters whose stories he’s telling, and his newest movie, “C’mon C’mon,” is no different.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist currently traveling the country interviewing children about their lives and views on their future. It’s an intriguing topic for a single man approaching middle age to be involved in, but it all makes sense when he’s contacted by his sister Viv (Gabby Hoffman). Viv’s husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is a musician who recently moved to San Francisco, but suffers from ongoing mental health issues that have recently taken a turn for the worse. Viv, who lives in Los Angeles with their young son Jesse (Woody Norman), needs to go take care of him, but can’t find anyone to watch Jesse for a few days. In steps Johnny, who volunteers to go to L.A. to stay with Jesse, and quickly discovers that the precocious kid— who veers between being high-energy and moody, frequently interrupting Johnny to probe him with introspective queries— is quite the handful. But when Viv ends up needing to stay with Paul for long than she bargained for, Johnny takes Jesse on the road with him and his work, the pair making the trek together to New York and later New Orleans.
Much of the success of “C’mon C’mon” hinges on the performances of Phoenix and Norman, who need to sell the relationship between uncle and nephew and do so spectacularly. This role is a bit of a departure for Phoenix, requiring him to appear more affable than he usually does, but with Johnny he turns in one of his best performances to date, one filled with compassion for those around him, but also tinged with sadness. Snippets of the past sprinkled throughout the film reveal Viv and Johnny disagreeing over care for their ailing mother, opening up a rift between them that the pair reference in their conversations. And in both a conversation with Jesse and a monologue he records, Johnny briefly mentions a break-up with a woman he still cares for. This information provides some background for the characters, even if it doesn’t do much to move the minimal— and occasionally repetitive plot— forward. Norman has warm, believable rapport with Phoenix; even though any conflicts in the film resolved quickly and never reach any grand dramatic heights, he deftly handles both the lighter and darker moments his character faces, holding his own in any scene opposite one of today’s greatest living actors. Hoffman, meanwhile, is a revelation, delivering a performance that realistically conveys both her love for her family and the frustrations that are a byproduct of that love. Every actor turns in natural performances even though their characters express a heightened awareness of their emotions unusual to reality.
But as rich as the three lead performances are, what few supporting characters are portrayed rather shallowly. I’m speaking mainly of Paul, who we only see when he is in distress and having a breakdown. We don’t know him as a person outside of his mental health struggles. And the implication that Jesse maybe is or will in the future face similar struggles is certainly present in his mood swings and the way Viv sometimes talks about his moods and various quirks, but “C’mon C’mon” never explicitly goes there. Is an depth discussion on the intricacies of mental health the job of this movie that’s essentially a heart-warming but familiar tale of an older single man seeing life anew through the eyes of a child? Probably not, but it feels strange that it’s present but never explored.
There are some other pieces to “C’mon C’mon” that don’t entirely work either, like the fact that it sometimes feels like two different movies are unfolding at once. The film takes occasional brief detours into a more documentary style format in which we see Johnny and his colleagues interview kids for their project. Their responses clearly go hand-in-hand with Johnny learning more about Jesse, at times even almost seeming to comment on the rest of the movie, but they sometimes feel out of place, although Jesse develops a fascination with Johnny’s recording equipment. The film’s soundscape is richly designed, allowing us to occasionally hear the world through Jesse, and the black and white cinematography is lovely, even if this movie didn’t necessarily need it (the vibrance city like New Orleans is significantly dulled in grayscale). It does, at least, make “C’mon C’mon” feel like we are witnessing a documentation of a memory, which may be appropriate since a concern of Jesse’s expressed at a pivotal moment in the film is that one day he won’t remember this adventure he had with his uncle. “C‘mon C’mon” may feel slight in some aspects, but its characters concerns and feelings are very real. At the end of the day, Mike Mills’ film will simultaneously warm your heart and hit you where it hurts.
“C’mon C’mon” will be released in theaters on November 19. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated R.