Mike Mills’ (Beginners, 20th Century Women) new film C’mon, C’mon screening at the 59th New York Film Festival tugs at the heart. The writer-director applies simplicity with endearing characters for a warm-hearted, profound “slice of life” film we need right now.
Shot in black and white for a documentary feel, Mills has the advantage of directing incredible actors. Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman flex their talents, as supple as the wind. They play two unlikely compatriots in discovery. In their intricate protagonist-antagonist dance, they discover the best way to get along under crisis circumstances.
Phoenix portrays Johnny, a radio host and journalist researching the state of America by interviewing those rarely polled: kids. Deep into his project, his sister Viv (the superb Gaby Hoffmann) asks a huge favor. By the end of the conversation, Johnny agrees to fly his nine-year-old nephew Jesse across the country. Though Johnny doesn’t know Jesse (the incredible Woody Norman), he agrees to help Viv. While she confronts the trauma of getting Jesse’s dad into psych rehab, Johnny steps into his role as uncle. Johnny doesn’t have children and can barely hearken back to the time when he was Jesse’s age.
What ensues evolves into a relationship for the ages. In attempting to find the means to connect, Johnny and Jesse move through the push-pull of relationship trial and error. This includes misunderstandings, annoyances, accommodations, disappointments, compromises and apologies. In the process, they grow closer. And Johnny decides to take Jesse on a road trip to interview kids from LA to NYC to New Orleans. Along the way, Jesse and Johnny learn about each other’s inner lives. They move over rough bumps, with Viv having to ameliorate problems and encourage apologies over the phone.
Interspersed with video clips of interviews with adorable kids are enjoyable scenes of the relationship dynamic between Johnny and Jesse. Mills masterfully paces the down time between uncle and nephew (eating out, shopping, facing night terrors) with the kids’ interviews. The segments achieve a satisfying harmony and rhythm of their own as the uncle-nephew relationship journey lopes across an emotionally healing landscape of daily living.
During the interviews with the kids, Johnny asks pointed questions. Their responses about the future and their goals and dreams reveal the beauty and sanctity of innocent realists. Indeed, their responses force us to question our roles as caretakers of our society and planet. Do our actions leave an adequate legacy for them and provide for them with the love they deserve? Wisely, Mills’ focus on children redirects our own perspective. The director steers us to look at what we’re missing in the crises we face: children’s voices.
Mills employs no cinematic tricks. With authenticity, his sensitive, profound meld between the interview segments and the developing relationship between Jesse and Johnny shines, and he encourages almost spontaneous, improvised performances from Norman and Phoenix. Both astonish with prodigious acting talent. Phoenix reveals his phenomenal range with seamless ease. Norman’s performance isn’t a performance; he artfully is himself. However, in this ease of being himself, his understanding of Jesse pierces the heart. And Phoenix bounds along Norman’s illuminated insight, then settles in it, mingling it with his own.
C’mon, C’mon heals. The film’s understanding of life’s hurts, family reckonings, kindnesses and love astounds with poignant realism. This must-see film screened at the New York Film Festival. Look for this A24 release on streaming platforms.