Imagine growing up at the end of times, on a tattered planet suffocating under ceaseless environmental mayhem and the putrid fumes of socioeconomic injustice. That today’s children and teenagers, conscious of the discouraging prospects left for them by adults, can still envision a livable future must be a miracle of our species’ resilient hopefulness.
Testimonies from those young souls bolster “C’mon C’mon,” a heartwarmingly chaotic intergenerational dialogue turned heartening dramedy. Mike Mills’ latest feature, his first in five years, sees the writer-director once again observing the impasses and affinities of parents and their kids. He plied similar emotional topography in “20th Century Women” and “Beginners,” but now there’s the formal melancholy of black-and-white cinematography (by Robbie Ryan, “Marriage Story”) and the story of a minor and his impromptu guardian.
For this psychologically textured effort, Mills careens with the tale of a 9-year-old boy with a hyperactive mind, his burdened mother, and his uncle-turned–temporary putative father. The filmmaker casts away simplistic finger-pointing about the state of the world, painting grown-ups not as figures of superior understanding but as people just as lost as those much younger in age.
Radio reporter Johnny (a reassuringly tender Joaquin Phoenix) is in the thick of an ambitious project, going around the United States to interview a diverse group of youths about their cherished aspirations and most dreaded fears. Segments using conversations with real subjects punctuate the film as it moves from one location to the next. The inclusion of this moving non-fiction device healthily contrasts the artsy, white-privileged lens through which the protagonists discern situations. Without this collective assessment from adolescents who differ in class and preoccupations, the result would read too insular.
Thrown a curveball, Johnny heads to Los Angeles, a city he detests on principle as a proud New Yorker, to care for his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), while his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) spends a few days helping her husband, Jesse’s mentally-ill father. Having not seen him for a year, Jesse’s fondness for pretending to be an orphan — perhaps in hopes of ridding himself of the responsibility of coping with his parents’ traumas and conditions — perplexes Johnny at first. Slowly, however, he enters the rascal’s kingdom of unbound thoughts. Their attachment and bickering evolves when the uncle must bring him along on his work travels.
In a tête-à-tête with Phoenix, Norman (already a veteran of British TV) carves out a jaw-dropping turn from delicate mood swings and mischievous charm. Sweet and insufferable in equal measures, seemingly always in control, but still a child wrestling with the instability of his family life, Jesse astounds everyone with whom he comes into contact.
No diagnosis is ever noted; his identity is attributed simply to being nurtured in a household where uninhibited openness exists. A few days into their time together, Phoenix’s Johnny ponders whether the boy is spoiled or if he’s just not used to someone that age having such autonomy of voice and a fully-formed personality to express complex sentiments. The character complexities grow out of Mills’ divinely extraordinary writing.
Mills and editor Jennifer Vecchiarello (“Kajillionaire”) astutely disseminate intimate snippets of this family’s recent history in short, muted flashbacks, juxtaposing both timelines in a way that vividly supplements our knowledge of Johnny and Viv’s mother and of Jesse’s imaginative childhood. Aside from the lack of saturation, Ryan’s camerawork and lighting for the urban-set footage stays unassumingly naturalistic.
The director instead utilizes the frame less conventionally, having text messages appear as subtitles on screen or giving credit to texts and artists the narrative references. It’s as if the creator were annotating the movie as we watch it. Mills nods to “The Wizard of Oz” and even “Cameraperson” documentarian Kirsten Johnson’s philosophy on how capturing a person’s image or voice immortalizes them, giving meaning to Johnny’s work.
It’s quite refreshing to witness Phoenix invested in a portrayal that traffics in the mundane and the subdued, in the defeating acceptance of his parental inexperience. Johnny can be somewhere along the road that separates the actor’s introverted role in “Her” from the zany hero of “Inherent Vice.” The derangement of a murderous antihero like the “Joker” turns heads easily, but the internally laborious assignment of imbuing average humanity with a memorable spark earns merit.
More than once, Jesse asks why Johnny is not married, why he is alone, why he and his mother don’t talk anymore; Johnny smirks uncomfortably while the wide-eyed Jesse interrogates. These small confrontations, ripe with humor, exhibit the adult’s insecure childishness and the boy’s wise curiosity in a stimulating reversal.
In scene after scene, Phoenix’s banter with Norman builds a tower of trust. Johnny’s paternal affection for Jesse and the child’s acceptance of it, with its caveats and rough edges, creates a collection of tiny acting miracles. Mills and his cast create the illusion of intuitive filmmaking, convincing us that the lived spontaneity of the scripted vignettes manifests before our very eyes.
Viv’s interjections in phone conversations with Johnny allow for the endearing Hoffmann to become an equally substantial character. Frequently off screen, she is as much as part of this new dynamic for the trio. As she cries or laughs on the other side of the phone line, dealing with an ill partner and an absent son, we can see that these are two adults recognizing their cluelessness and helplessness.
Reminiscent of Mills documentary “Does Your Soul Have Cold?” or his fiction debut “Thumbsucker,” two movies concerned with mental illness, “C’mon C’mon” resonates as an amalgamation of past thematic interests coupled with the pressure cooker that is our current reality. But perhaps more than anything he’s done before, this soul-soothing new take on familiar fixations is unguarded and achingly truthful. Without solutions to our visibly irreversible march towards doom, the film supports the notion that no one knows whether tomorrow our troubles might or might not change for the better.
Mills fights despair, not with false positivity but with compassion for our unifying uncertainty. Like a drop of drinking water in the salty ocean, it probably won’t save us, but it might keep us going just a little longer.
“C’mon C’mon” opens in US theaters November 2021.