The films of Mike Mills have always had a sense of poetry to their craft. Each of his stories have a deep-seeded belief in the best of humanity, even at their most vulnerable. His visual and musical choices often accompany this to staggering effect. His latest film, C’mon C’mon, encompasses the very best of what makes Mills the talent he is. Frankly, this is one of 2021’s best films!
Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a lonely middle-aged radio journalist who is currently touring the United States, interviewing children on their thoughts regarding the future. He gets a call from his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who he has not spoken to for some time. Viv needs to care for her estranged husband, who is going through a tough battle with mental health, and so she asks if Johnny can look after her 9-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman) while she’s away. Johnny agrees, and, over the course of the film, uncle and nephew forge a growing bond as the challenges and questions of life occur around them.
Mental health, time, and the strife of life are staunchly in the foreground of C’mon C’mon, informing much of the narrative beats and emotional themes. Here are characters who are lost, confused, overwhelmed, or a combination of them all. They fret over the woes of the past, the grief of the present, and the bleakness of the future. It’s easy to fall into downward spirals of depression or hopelessness when faced with such prospects, even for a child like Jesse. They say that 9 is the age that children begin to truly understand adult concepts, such as the finality of death. Therefore Jesse is as susceptible to these worries as his mother and uncle, even if he doesn’t entirely grasp it at times.
The film’s artistic style accompanies this beautifully. The black and white cinematography harkens back to the past, both to the old school ways in which cinema was captured, and to times gone by. Perhaps to the times that seemed simpler, either because you can read about them in literature, or because you were younger and blissfully ignorant back then. This choice even adds melancholy, as Johnny and Viv regularly talk on the phone and reflect on memories that they have mutual regrets over. Meanwhile, the choice to shoot the film mostly from low angles adds a subtle sense of pathos, a feeling which gradually evolves into one of joy and poignancy as the narrative continues. The filmmaking reflects this by the camera shots slowly shifting upwards – to something more optimistic.
C’mon C’mon also makes the interesting choice of referencing different mediums. Music has always been a crucial element to Mills’ films, and while the music certainly evokes strong emotions, C’mon C’mon makes specific, superimposed, references to works of literature, namely stories aimed for youths. This includes titles like The Bipolar Bear and Star Child among others. Not only do they accompany the reflective, even meditative, themes and tone, but they assist in making the internal conflicts of the characters external. From small extracts to characters reciting them as a story, such inclusions serve gateways not only into what the characters believe, but also how those beliefs change and evolve over the course of their time together. The choice to include specifically stories for younger audiences adds to the theme that the fears of adulthood can be quelled by seeing things from new perspectives, even that of a child’s.
Mills has always had a knack for gleaning emotions through these unorthodox methods. Yet the way he writes his characters and their interactions with each other are so heartfelt and lifelike, that it becomes easy to see ourselves in these roles. The dialogue is as natural as it is sharp and measured. Each scene gradually reveals more details about each character’s lives and thoughts, creating complete characters whose fears inform their struggles and whose hopes and qualities inform their growths. It’s easy to become absorbed in the lives of these people, and the empathy the film channels is among the most of any film from 2021, with the film’s visual splendour allowing audiences to become lost within the presentation too.
But like Mills’ best films, his direction and character writing allow his actors to demonstrate gargantuan range. Phoenix has been on a roll for a long time now with great performance after great performance, be it The Master, Her, or You Were Never Really Here. Johnny’s subdued anxiety and guilt, often creating a veil of denial about where he is mentally, along with his wish to do right by his nephew, make for a performance as layered as it is captivating. Hoffmann, although not featured as heavily, dazzles in her role as she reconciles her feelings and choices with the new impossible situation she must manage within her life. And young Woody Norman is a brilliant find! On top of having magnetic chemistry with Phoenix – their chemistry serving as the crux for the film – the way Norman taps into and portrays the complex emotions that Jesse both recognises from the adults and portrays within himself is utterly riveting. It’s a phenomenal performance.
C’mon C’mon may tell hard truths, or perhaps re-iterates truths that you already knew from experiencing highs and lows of your own life. But the genuinely sincere and gorgeously crafted way that it presents its messages make it an experience that is equal parts charming and beguiling. For life is always going to be filled with darkness, grief and uncertainty, but the best way we can endure these things is to keep on living until that better day comes along. Mills’ previous film, 20th Century Women, earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay; a thoroughly deserved recognition. I predict C’mon C’mon will garner even more nominations.
C’mon C’mon releases in cinemas December 3rd
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman
Runtime: 108 minutes