Written and directed by Mike Mills
Will our kids be alright? Will we, the adults? The future emotional prosperity of young and old alike is on the line in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio journalist who must take care of his nephew while his sister is away taking care of the boy’s father.
It’s not a groundbreaking storyline, but the circumstances are fraught. The boy’s parents are not together, the father bipolar and now going through the valley on his hands and knees. The sister, Liv, played with wooly sweater tenderness by Gaby Hoffmann, also isn’t on the best of terms with Johnny. We learn quickly they both lost their mother a year ago, and the anguish of tending to a steadily eroding parent made them strangers. Now it’s time for the reintroduction.
Most of that happens over phone calls, as Johnny checks in with Liv and so C’mon C’mon centers on Johnny and little Jesse, a precocious boy full of energy and tough questions. Not “why’s the sky blue?”-questions, but matters of the soul, of the heart, like when he ambushes Johnny with questions about why his last partner left him, or why he’s alone in life. Real (a)cute kid.
Over the course of the film they tour America attached by the hip and we watch as Johnny must field more awkward questions about himself, life, his sister’s situation, Jesse’s dad, and constantly try to gauge what Jesse knows and what adult truths are too tough lay on a child who’s nonetheless astute and has a well-functioning bullshit meter. There’s both comedy and tension in this highwire act of Johnny’s, and Jesse’s disarming frankness draws laughs that are immediately followed by a sad recognition that maybe a child his age shouldn’t be this cynical and definitely shouldn’t sometimes roleplay as an orphan in what’s a thinly-veiled and heartbreaking coping mechanism.
C’mon C’mon is one of those soft films of people talking through life’s big and small disasters, something Hollywood gave up on once it felt no longer had room in the budget for medium-sized films that dealt with matters of the heart that weren’t necessarily romantic. They featured solid writing, an earnest interest in people solving ephemeral but hard-hitting issues, and they didn’t resort to empty spectacle, deriving their pleasure from the warm feeling of seeing “real” people wrestle with what it means to be when it comes to oneself and others and hopefully coming to some realization, however hard-fought and minor. You know, mensch-type movies that are relatable, not escapism.
Jesse’s sharp as a tack, and young Woody Norman brings the boy to life with seeming ease, but perhaps Jesse sees things a little too clearly for a boy his age, expresses his feelings a little too well for someone with little hold on life’s invisible currents and the games they play on us. At times, I did feel Mills was tipping his hand through Jesse, delivering some of his points with the youngster as a poorly disguised mouthpiece. It’s tempting, Mike, I get it, and you know what they say, you’ll get the truths from drunks and children.
Yet, someone told me Jesse’s seeming unnatural maturity is likely due to his situation at home, exposed to more “life” than the average kid would be. He’s already seen a lot more emotional highs and lows than your average boy. There’s probably some truth in that.
Mills’ film has its eye on the future. Johnny works as a journalist centers around exactly that, asking kids all over the country what they think the future will look like. It’s an open-ended question relatable to all, but deeply revealing about the individual, betraying inner fears and hopes – essentially an entire person’s outlook. In Jesse, Johnny is asked this question in reverse. What does the future hold for this other person? How can he be of help?
You might find this to be too cute and navel-gazing, and you may be right. You may also have become too jaded during a couple of years with seemingly endless downturns (I don’t blame you), but C’mon C’mon might hold the answer to feelings of how one perseveres in times of cloudy disillusions, asking its characters to rigorously interrogate why they feel and act they way the do, and whether there isn’t an alternative.
It’s a film for Sundays. A contemplative film requiring self-reflection and offering some touching insight in return.