Throughout his career, filmmaker Mike Mills has shown a huge beating heart, as well as a real understanding of humanity. Whether it’s Thumbsucker, Beginners, 20th Century Women, or now C’mon C’mon, he mines our feelings for cinematic nirvana. This latest movie, playing at the 59th New York Film Festival, sees him somehow at his most gentle. Armed with a pair of remarkable performances, Mills tells a small story that packs a big emotional punch. While never going too deep in his drama, or too broad in his comedy, he tells a human tale, one that engages from start to finish. A24 has a touching flick on their hands here with C’mon C’mon, to be sure.
C’mon C’mon is, at its core, about understanding our feelings. It may sound like a Mister Rogers type situation, but it’s not quite that. It’s more about how adults and children connect. They may be at two very different stages in life, but the needs, especially emotionally, remain surprisingly similar. How they’re expressed? Well, not so much.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio journalist, one who travels across the country, interviewing children about what they think the future will be like. Their answers, varied in their content but always surprisingly complex, dominate his life, but his family is about to make their presence felt. While making a long overdue call to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who he fought with while their mother was dying, he learns that she’s in a pickle. Viv’s husband Paul (Scott McNairy) is dealing with mental health issues and she needs to try to get him checked in somewhere. While she’s occupied with that, her young son Jesse (Woody Norman) will need tending to. Offering to come out to California and watch him, Johnny figures a few days with his nephew will be great. Thus begins a tenuous bonding experience that is stretched out when Viv needs to stay longer with Paul and Johnny needs to head back to New York, taking Jesse with him.
Getting to truly know his nephew for the first time, Johnny finds both the joys and frustrations that comes from being a child’s guardian. From navigating the streets of his hometown Manhattan with Jesse to some discoveries while he brings him on a work trip to New Orleans, it’s the type of experience that will stay with both of them for a long time. Of course, Viv will eventually be ready to take Jesse back, and when that happens, the trio will have formed a new and potentially more lasting relationship.
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman are outstanding here. The former is a known quantity and now an Oscar winner, but the latter is a revelation. Phoenix gets to be as lovable as we’ve ever seen him, essaying a flawed yet incredibly good-hearted man. He genuinely loves his nephew and sister, even if he’s not always as present for her as she’d like. His performance is far from showy, but it stays with you. As for Norman, you just want to say wow. There isn’t a bit of child actor in him, so the character is fully fleshed out. Some of his moments just leave you in awe of what will come next. Norman and Phoenix have excellent chemistry together, so even the simplest of scenes lands in a big way. While the focus is on Norman and especially Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann does some lovely work as well. Hoffmann has a real sibling rapport with Phoenix, allowing some things to be deftly left unsaid. Supporting players here include Molly Webster and Jaboukie Young-White, in addition to the aforementioned Scoot McNairy, who is intense in his small scenes.
Writer/director Mike Mills has always been a perceptive screenwriter, and that’s true again here. Directing the character study with an intimate black and white visual palate from cinematographer Robbie Ryan, he makes it all about the conversations and interactions between his cast. C’mon C’mon is rife with little moments that stay with you. He never calls attention to himself as a filmmaker, letting Hoffmann, Norman, and Phoenix lead the way. Backing it all is a gentle yet omnipresent score from Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner. It’s arguably Mills’ smallest work to date, but it’s among his best as well. The sense of honesty that permeates every frame of this picture is truly notable.
Getting a sense of the Academy Award prospects for C’mon C’mon is a bit difficult, but that does a disservice to the quality of the flick. A24 has another lovely film on their hands. If Joaquin Phoenix cracks the Best Actor lineup or Woody Norman the Best Supporting Actor field, not to mention Mike Mills’ Best Original Screenplay candidacy, all the better. If not? This is still an engaging and emotional movie, one you would do well to be on the lookout for. It’s a mellow NYFF experience that will soon be charming audiences next month.