If I were to try to tell you what writer/director Mike Mills's C'mon C'mon is about, I would most likely fail. On the surface, of course, it seems obvious. Johnny, played with understated perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, is a radio host traveling the country interviewing children and teens about their hopes and dreams, life expectations, and thoughts about the future of our country. It's a seemingly warm task except for most of the time when it's not.
Johnny had a falling out with his sister Viv, a never better Gaby Hoffmann, a year earlier as their mother was dying and Viv did the vast majority of the emotional and physical heavy lifting. Now, however, Viv needs Johnny when her estranged partner, Paul (Scoot McNairy), experiences a significant episode with his Bipolar Disorder and needs help whether he realizes it or not. Viv needs Johnny to watch her son, Jesse (Woody Norman), whom she shares with Paul and whose trauma over a past episode of his father's is palpable. Despite his recording commitments, Johnny agrees.
And so we are off.
At about this point, you are rightfully expecting a lighthearted mismatched buddy flick of sorts, a "fish out of water" lifelong bachelor learning the ins and outs of parenting Jesse and, well, parenting himself.
You are at least partially right.
However, C'mon C'mon is so much more.
C'mon C'mon asks the big questions that arise out of the little intimacies. Reportedly birthed out of a conversation that Mills had while giving his own son a bath, C'mon C'mon feels that intimate from beginning to end.
You've likely experienced this kind of intimacy at some point in your life whether with a lover or child, parent or BFF. If you haven't, then you've likely craved it. It's a scary thing, really, because once you've experienced it you'll spend hours upon hours listening to your child's meaningless rants about anything and everything and, yes, you'll run off in the middle of the night to try to rescue an ex who doesn't know how to rescue themselves.
Love makes us do weird things. Love makes us do hard things.
I've long had a sort of mixed up relationship with Joaquin Phoenix, at one time swearing I didn't care for him before slowly, even begrudgingly, I found him to be one of the boldest, most remarkable actors working today and I loved nearly every project he touched. I don't know. I think, perhaps, I bought into the media hype about Phoenix instead of experiencing Phoenix for myself and once I had that experience I was in awe.
I'm still in awe.
Shot in pristine black-and-white by D.P. Robbie Ryan, C'Mon C'Mon is, at its core, a film about children that respects their wisdom and intelligence, insight and wonder. C'Mon C'mon worries about children but not in a patronizing way. C'Mon C'Mon seems to have a deep faith in the wonder of childhood and in our ability to one day get this thing we call life right for one another.
I loved every moment of C'Mon C'Mon, a film that was exactly what I expected and then became so much more. Mills didn't feel the need to toss in trumped up histrionics and traumas instead, perhaps, recognizing that life itself is hard enough.
Learning how to love one another is hard work.
C'Mon C'Mon depends entirely upon an authentic, non-Hollywood chemistry existing between Phoenix and Woody Norman.
In the early stages of their individual journeys, this forced upon them existence is unstable and unsafe at best. They need each other, though neither one really has a clue exactly what that means. Phoenix's Johnny is not the cool uncle taking the nephew on a cool road trip. Instead, Phoenix's Johnny is a wounded soul who's become unsure if this thing called love is really worth it until he meets this child who absolutely, 100% needs him to live him.
Can he deliver?
Then, there's Woody Norman.
As nine-year-old Jesse, Norman absolutely gives one of the year's breakout performances. A model since the age of four who has expanded into acting, the U.K.-based Norman received his first ever acting award at Indy's own Heartland International Film Festival this week with the Pioneering Spirit Rising Star Award.
Indeed, Woody Norman is a rising star.
At first glance, you can't help but think through our Americanized lens that Jesse is somewhere on the Autism Spectrum or perhaps possessing of a roaring case of ADHD, though Mills avoids labeling him. Instead, he is Jesse, a vibrantly precocious youngster with a father who occasionally frightens him, a mother who is frequently distracted, a mind that never slows down, and an uncle who may be able to help him assemble all the pieces in such a way that he can finally peacefully co-exist with them all.
Norman's is a remarkable performance that is both rambunctious and sweet, achingly vulnerable and, well, nine-years-old.
Gaby Hoffmann, a long underappreciated actress, is simply extraordinary as Viv even as a good amount of her screen time comes via telephone calls with a fumbling Johnny trying to figure out how to best take care of Jesse and make sure that he gets delivered back to his mother safe and sound. Most of the time, this consists of Viv reassuring Johnny that "this is normal" and that Johnny is, in fact, not failing at this task.
Love is really, really hard work and, yeah, sometimes we completely suck at it.
Hoffmann's Viv is tender and frazzled, fiercely loving yet honest enough to say sometimes she hates the fact that her son won't stop talking.
She loves him. She still really, really loves him.
In a film about little moments, I'd be remiss to not mention Scoot McNairy's rather remarkable, respectful, and dignified work as Paul. Portraying a Bipolar episode is difficult, caricature always staring you down at the next step yet McNairy finds the lyrical beauty within Paul and practically has us screaming at the screen "Please, don't let anything bad happen to him."
There are so many brilliant choices here made by Mike Mills. The original music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner isn't quite what you'd expect to work here, yet it's utterly masterful. Jennifer Vecchiarello's editing work is precise and lingering and wrapped around ensuring that we completely buy into the honesty, uncertainty, and wonder of these relationships. Katie Byron's production design is poetry unto itself.
C'Mon C'Mon is without question one of my favorite films of 2021 and a film that has left me sobbing and smiling simultaneously as I write this review even moreso the morning after having watched the film than I did during the film. I remember these word and these images and I feel immersed in them. I contemplate myself what I think about when I think about the future and I contemplate my hopes and dreams.
I contemplate who and what makes me feels safe and lets me exist exactly as I am.
C'mon C'mon I say to myself. Do this. Do this thing called life. Love is hard. Love is really hard. But, it's worth it. By God, I think it may very well be worth it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic