C’mon C’mon (2021)

Mike Mills | 1hr 48min

There is an invitation built into both the title and story of C’mon C’mon, beckoning us to join a radio journalist and his nine-year-old nephew on a road trip across the United States. At one point in the film these words manifest in young Jesse’s dialogue as he records himself on his uncle’s microphone, putting his own thoughts towards Johnny’s audio project which involves conducting interviews with children from around the country. Their optimistic, cynical, pensive, and unconstrained ideas about the future of the world make up the connective tissue of C’mon C’mon, marking Johnny’s episodic journey from city to city like a path to understanding his own identity in relation to others.

When Jesse’s mother, Viv, finds herself needing to care for her estranged husband, Paul, the responsibility of child-caring is thrust onto Johnny for a few months, the joys and hardships of which are quick to reveal themselves. Even through his fights with Jesse though, the tenderness between them is pervasive. When Johnny briefly loses his temper after Jesse hides from him in a shop, he takes the opportunity to learn from Viv how he can do better, bringing himself to apologise to repair the relationship. These are flawed, complicated people who have suffered through much, but there is also a joy in realising that they are taking this journey together, maintaining their individuality while endlessly learning about others. Reflecting on his mother’s words, Jesse finds comfort in this perspective.

“She says even though we love each other she’ll never know everything about me, and I’ll never know everything about her. It’s just the way it is.”

A breath-taking shot framing Johnny and Jesse beneath the long-reaching branches of oak trees – an image of tender nurture.

It is no coincidence that this is the project Joaquin Phoenix has chosen to move onto after starring in the heavily cynical thriller Joker. In its sentimentality, C’mon C’mon may as well be that film’s polar opposite, and only continues to prove his range in offering him voiceovers and absorbingly naturalistic dialogue to mumble and stutter through. Jesse’s bluntness makes for an excellent and often hilarious contrast to Johnny’s verbal clumsiness, telling him without inhibition that “Mum said you would be awkward.” Later when the boy brings up an abortion his mother had years ago, an uncomfortable silence fills the air, broken only by Johnny’s voiceover.

“What the fuck do I say to that?”

This is not an uneasiness that Johnny will completely overcome by the end of the film, but there is a joy in seeing him accept those moments as demonstrations of Jesse’s unique character. Mills smooths over these bumps with a lyrical elegance in his cutting, bringing scenes to an end by fading out the dialogue, and wandering through flashbacks and cutaways with the same stream-of-consciousness flow as those unscripted interviews interspersed throughout. There is a distinct impression that we are watching a skilled editor and formalist at work here, passing through rhythms with Dessner Brothers’ floating, ambient score, and bringing each piece together to paint a portrait of a relationship as sweet and unhurried as this narrative’s languid pace.

Mills’ picturesque long shots identifying the distinct characteristics of each city, the soft black-and-white cinematography lending a gentle air of nostalgia to each.

There are certainly traces of Woody Allen’s Manhattan in the way Mills gives character to bustling American cities through long shots and montages, setting up the metropolitan bustle of New York streets against the quaint Creole architecture of New Orleans, but the influence becomes even more evident when we escape inside houses, hotels, and stores. There is particular attention that Mills pays to how his actors are blocked against interiors within his black-and-white cinematography, fracturing Johnny and Viv’s connection in one shot that splits them across the room through the precise placement of a mirror. In moments of unity though, they are brought together in tight frames through doors and hallways, emphasising the physical affection between family members living under a single roof.

Superb blocking within interior sets, capturing this family through doorways and mirrors.

In this way Mills finds an emotional vulnerability growing inside each of his characters, but it is especially in Johnny that we see the greatest transformation of all. As a journalist, he feels “a sense of invincibility, a sense of invisibility,” as he passes through others lives, experiences a taste, and then leaves without any major commitments. But just as Jesse quickly learns how to use the microphone, so too does he become an interviewer of sorts, encouraging his uncle to turn inwards with often awkward questions. “Why don’t you and mum act like brother and sister?” he asks. “Do you have trouble expressing your emotions?” It is no wonder that Johnny finds himself overwhelmed, and yet this push from passive observation to actively examining his identity in relation to loved ones and strangers is a subtle but impactful development.

When all is said and done though, it is not Johnny’s words that Mills leaves us with. Instead, he ends on the voices of those children that Phoenix interviewed, playing out over the credits in place of music – each one distinct in its perspective, finding the words to express ideas they have never had to articulate before, and together leaving a sweet, lingering taste of hope for their futures.

C’mon C’mon is currently playing in theatres.