C’mon C’mon, like the previous three films from writer-director Mike Mills, boasts a deceptively simple premise. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a NPR-style radio journalist who goes around the country interviewing young children and adolescents about their thoughts on the future. One day, his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), calls and says she needs someone to look after her 9-year-old son while she takes her husband to receive inpatient therapy for mental health issues. So, inevitably, the single and lonely uncle Johnny gets tasked with bringing his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) everywhere from New York City to New Orleans with him as he works.
The curmudgeonly adult suddenly having to care for a child, and the subsequent thawing of his heart, is of course a story we’ve seen hundreds of times on the big screen. Opening Wednesday at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema, C’mon C’mon doesn’t do anything to subvert that familiar formula and could be something truly insufferable in the hands of a less-skilled filmmaker. Luckily, Mills is very skilled, so while Johnny and Jesse’s travels may not take you to any unexpected destinations, they’re captured with such an eye for authentic human moments that it feels like you’re visiting for the first time.
Mills has stated in interviews that C’mon C’mon is inspired by the small, ordinary moments he’s shared with his son over the years — giving him his first bath, reading stories together, tucking him into bed at night. In life, it’s often the little moments that get lodged into our memories rather than the grand milestones. Appropriately, the film itself favors scenes of quiet, mundane beauty over sweeping melodrama. The most devastating sequences often involve hushed conversations about family and relationships between Johnny and Jesse after a day of the two learning to navigate the world at each other’s sides.
Both characters are struggling with unfair family circumstances: Jesse is living with a father who has been burdened with severe mental illness, and Johnny is lonely and adrift after taking care of his demented mother caused a rift between him and his sister. And wouldn’t you know it, their ensuing relationship is going to help them both work through those feelings. Mills’s script is beautifully understated, but the pair’s odd-couple dynamic wouldn’t hold half its power without Phoenix and Norman’s performances. Phoenix is unsurprisingly great because frankly, he always is. However, this is miles away from any of his recent work; consider the unsettling, alien mannerisms of his Oscar-winning turn in 2019’s Joker compared to the naturalistic work he’s doing in C’mon C’mon and that’s all the proof one needs to understand that Phoenix is among the most versatile performers of this generation.
As a child actor given the unenviable task of carrying an entire movie alongside Phoenix, Norman is quite extraordinary. Jesse is indeed the loud, chaotic 9-year-old boy one tends to see in this kind of movie, but there’s also a striking wisdom behind his eyes and in the cadence of his speech. When his uncle Johnny is on the verge of sending him back home after he runs off in a crowded New York City block, Jesse gives him a look both damning and heartbreaking: He knows his uncle is a good man deep down and he also knows he can be extraordinarily selfish. Jesse might not know much about the world, but his sense of right and wrong is stronger than most other people’s. It would be easy for this level of precociousness to turn grating in a child performance, and Norman finds just the right balance of naivete and insight to make Jesse real.
Mills chose to shoot C’mon C’mon in black and white, and the result is one of 2021’s most visually resplendent films. This aesthetic choice seems in part a tribute to adult dramas of the ’70s — The Last Picture Show and Manhattan certainly come to mind — when movies for grownups about grownups were far more common at the local theater.
On the other hand, it also serves a thematic purpose: Each shot of a city skyline, bustling New York traffic or faded New Orleans tenement is captured with startling precision that helps the viewer see the beauty of the cities through Jesse’s eyes — a child experiencing the world for the first time. It’s as if removing the color forces other details of the setting to further stand out. It’s a simple trick but a hugely effective one. That’s par for the course with Mills, though, a storyteller who can make the most well-worn narratives radiate with new urgency.