Writer/director Mike Mills is a solid filmmaker who always seems to think he needs a bit of a gimmick in his storytelling to make it interesting. I suppose if you look at it, all movies feature some gimmick, but Mills’ gimmicks tend to seem a little extra. With Thumbsucker, the gimmick was treating thumbsucking as an addiction; in Beginners, it was the gay older dad and the adult child attempting to understand this late-in-life development; and with 20th Century Women, it was hippies (this is the only one of these three films I didn’t like). Having a gimmick doesn’t automatically mean the film is bad, but it does sometimes lessen the impact the film is trying to make.
With Mills’ latest work, C’mon C’mon, the only genuine gimmick is the film being in black and white, which is a gimmick I fully endorse (have a look at the current release Belfast and the upcoming The Tragedy of Macbeth for recent examples of how varied and stunning B&W can be). I’m not completely sure C’mon C’mon is any better a movie by being devoid of color, but it does underscore the timeless quality of its story about testing the limits of familial bonds. In one of his most charming (dare I say normal?) roles in years, Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a busy radio journalist (presumably of the NPR variety) who re-enters the life of his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) and her young son Jesse (a terrific Woody Norman) when Viv’s husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) suffers a mental collapse due to a bipolar condition and his deciding to stop taking his medication.
The project Johnny is working on involves interviewing kids around Jesse’s age and a little older on their feelings regarding the state of the nation and what the future might hold, and the work requires him to travel from the west coast to New York to New Orleans—wherever they have interviews lined up. Viv needs Johnny to take care of Jesse while she helps Paul in the Bay Area where he’s just taken a new job with a local symphony orchestra and is going through a crisis while adjusting to the new setting. The only way this arrangement works is if Johnny can bring Jesse on the road with him, and Viv reluctantly agrees, especially since she and Johnny have been estranged for some time leading up to this moment.
Although there are more contrived and expected dramatic moments in C’mon C’mon, like Johnny losing Jesse briefly in New York, the best parts of the film involve just listening to people talk to each other. We’re treated to a great number of Johnny’s interviews, and they are enlightening and sometimes tough to listen to, as young people express everything from concern to genuine distress about the world and where it’s headed. But even just watching nephew and uncle begin to bond is fascinating. Jesse sees these trips with his uncle as adventurous, but like any kid, he begins to miss his mother, who keeps extending her time with Paul. Johnny finds ways to engage Jesse by allowing him to play and experiment with his audio-recording equipment, and soon they even begin to work together. We also get snippets of what feels like Johnny’s audio diary, in which he reveals how deeply lost he feels after recently breaking up with a longtime partner. But even those sad remembrances open up the rest of Johnny’s life and mindset, and it allows us to understand his thought process in an unconventional way.
What makes C’mon C’mon such a winning, contemplative work is its portrait of an unconventional family (although maybe these days, unconventional has become the conventional) who come together in a crisis with an understanding that whatever it was that pulled them apart will be dealt with in the aftermath. Even when things get rough, the unsentimental affection shines through, and amid the backdrop of children worried about the world we live in, somehow the story of this family gives us hope. The film feels lived-in and comfortable, making it easy to slip into and simply be a part of it. The stakes are perhaps low, but not everything has to be traumatic or world-changing. This is just a beautiful, deceptively simple story, played out by a great cast, working with Mills’ best screenplay to date.
C’mon C’mon is now playing in select theaters.
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