Published on November 25th, 2021 | by Craig Silliphant0
Mike Mills’ new film, C’mon C’mon, tells the story of an uncle and his nephew. It’s a powerful but playful meditation on childhood and more.
I sometimes wonder what my eight-year-old son will remember about these times. Not just Covid and the world he’s growing up in, but our family moments — his life at this age.
Will he remember all the great times we’ve had? The fun things we’ve done together? Or, the times I was impatient or yelled at him? The times he said things that hurt my feelings?
More likely, he’ll be left with a series of impressions; ideas and notions to be sorted out over a lifetime as he gets older. I mean, I don’t remember too many specifics from when I was his age. In fact, I’m still mentally processing things about childhood as I get older and wiser. And I’m now experiencing the dynamic from the parenting end of the spectrum, a piece of the equation I didn’t have when I was eight.
C’mon C’mon, the new film from director Mike Mills (20th Century Women, Thumbsucker), explores these notions and more. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist. One night, in a lonely hotel room, he phones his estranged sister (Gaby Hoffman). Their mother died and her husband had a mental breakdown, which caused a river in their relationship that was too deep for them to cross at the time. He visits her in LA, also reconnecting with his ten-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). When Johnny’s sister has to leave to help her husband, Johnny temporarily takes Jesse back to New York with him, setting the stage for them to explore their relationship.
The film features absolutely stunning black and white photography, bringing locations like LA, New York, and New Orleans to life. Oddly enough, for a small movie about relationships, the sound design stands out. Johnny and Jesse bond over the equipment that Johnny uses to record his subjects, sound being another sense that children use to make sense of their environment.
The story is excellent and pulls at a few threads and mysteries about the broken relationships in their family. But it’s really C’mon C’mon’s meditations on childhood that blew me away.
Sometimes the film sees the world through the eyes of a child and sometimes it sees children as they are; beautiful and annoying, fragile and full of nonsense, yet also strong, resilient, adaptable and full of a wisdom not yet tainted by walking through the world.
Phoenix, Hoffman, and Norman bring all the subtle portrayal of emotion that they can muster; warm sensitivity, anger, selfishness, selflessness. The editor cuts in impressions of moments, less dreamlike than Tree of Life, but powerful all the same. The adults pantomime with Jesse, doing the goofy shit you do with kids; stomping around pretending to be a dinosaur, having dance parties or wrestling matches in the living room, or stroking their hair as they lie on your stomach in bed at the end of the day.
But it’s not all fun and games. Jesse and Johnny don’t exactly fit together when they embark on their journey. Johnny is childless and unsure of how to treat this little person that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Jesse is a quirky kid, sometimes smart for his age because he spends so much time around adults — and sometimes at the mercy of his childish emotions.
My only criticism is that it feels a bit forced at times, but that’s very rare. The nerves it hit far outshine any clumsy sentimentality you might find. I probably wouldn’t have known this had I not had kids myself; but C’mon C’mon gets to the heart of so many universal truths about children.
There is a brilliant line that sums up Johnny’s relationship to Jesse as he tries to figure out how to navigate their troubled waters. And any parent that can look in a mirror honestly will feel the truth of it washing over them when Johnny says it.
“Either he’s selfish…or I am.”
Johnny, like many parents, realizes something heartbreaking too. You spend countless hours talking to your kids, teaching them, explaining the universe to them, explaining other people to them, reading to them, playing games with them, getting down on their level to love them. But sadly, like a mythological character who is cursed by the gods, they won’t really remember much more than impressions of the time you spent together. But that doesn’t make it a waste of time. One can only hope the impressions they retain will help serve and guide them as they get older. And that they will remember the good you did, the love you gave them — and that they can come to understand your impatient, angry moments.
C’mon C’mon is more than a high concept story about two disparate people thrust together. It’s a philosophical examination of huge themes; motherhood, childhood, memory, mental illness, family, death, and love. When I think of humanist filmmakers, Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project) comes to mind. But Mills gives him a run for his money here. C’mon C’mon is one of the most human films I’ve ever seen.
Any movie that causes us to look deep inside ourselves to question the very nature of our lives and our place in the universe has to be one of the best films of the year.