C’mon C’mon, 2021, directed by Mike Mills, 4.5/5 Stars
Caring for a child is one of the most emotional, tiresome, enlightening, grueling and fulfilling tasks anyone can undertake. It’s a skill that has to be learned through trial and error, through fear and acceptance. It’s a joyous experience of teaching someone else how to live and learning how to live in the process. Mike Mills’ most recent directorial effort, the thoughtful and polished C’mon C’mon, understands the struggles and successes of parenting unlike any other film in recent memory, and executes its ideas with grace, nuance and understated style. Each element of the film is elegantly constructed, and the cast’s clear dedication and passion for the script shines through in an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally warm final product.
The film’s entry point to exploring these ideas is its protagonist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist traveling with a small crew interviewing kids around the country. The plot’s inciting incident is a call from Johnny’s sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who asks him if he can look after her nine-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman) in Los Angeles while she cares for her mentally unstable husband in Oakland. Johnny agrees to do so, and what first begins as ambivalence and annoyance towards Jesse becomes a believably strong and loving bond between uncle and nephew.
One of the film’s biggest strengths, as well as one of its most obvious stylistic choices, is its black-and-white color grading. This visual choice is well-suited for the confidently nostalgic and romanticized aura of the story and is complimented by cinematography choices that highlight wide views of cityscapes and a focus on natural-feeling lighting setups. As the plot progresses and Viv’s husband needs continued attention, Viv makes the choice to allow Jesse to travel with Johnny’s radio crew to New York and later New Orleans. Both cities are affectionately shot, creating a picturesque love letter to travel and urban life.
What rests at the film’s emotional core, and the main reason for its success, is the cast. Child actors that give even passable performances are few and far between, and Norman rises to match Phoenix, who gives one of the best performances in his already impressive career. The well-written dialogue between the two feels incredibly natural, and the shift in their relationship throughout feels realistic and earned, an attribute that the film would undoubtedly fail without. Hoffman and the rest of the supporting cast are notably valuable additions as well, and help Johnny and Jesse feel fleshed out as characters.
Mills sometimes gets sidetracked; there are times at which the central relationship between Johnny and Jesse takes a backseat to explore some bigger ideas that overstay their welcome. For a few scenes, the story seems interested in exploring Viv and Johnny’s relationship with their deceased mother, but the thread is soon lost. There are also a few moments throughout that use clips from Johnny’s radio interviews to examine the experience of youth in America, but these segments are too short to bring up any real questions, and fail to thematically connect themselves back to the two main characters. While these stabs at larger concepts are perhaps a little out of place, they add to a decorative thematic wallpaper, and help the world of the film feel genuine and lived-in, making it hard to fault Mills for making the attempt.
Sentimental and triumphantly touching, C’mon C’mon arguably exceeds Mills’ last successful outing 20th Century Women and takes him a step further towards carving out a distinct and personal style in filmmaking. C’mon C’mon is available to rent on digital platforms right now.