Maybe the simplest way to describe Mike Mills’s new film C’mon C’mon is as an adventure in babysitting. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio producer who’s undertaken an ambitious project to travel the country interviewing young people about the future and their feelings about it — about climate change, animal extinction, loneliness. Also about the present as they understand it, and their fates as young people, and the flaws and contradictions of the adults in their lives. It’s an array of subjects that Johnny delicately probes, his big microphone in tow, in conversations with kids of varying ages, races, and backgrounds, some of them the children immigrants, some of them filling in at home for incarcerated parents, and others whose lives seem privileged in comparison, but whose voices and insights Johnny takes no less seriously.
One of the first things we perceive of Johnny, then, is that he’s good with kids — in this context. Johnny respects his subjects, gives their feelings room to unfurl with care, says up front that they can opt out of any question at any time. The interviews sometimes get into pretty personal territory, as when one young man confesses that his mother’s distaste for crying is something he hates. But it’s all only so personal. Johnny, a New Yorker, gets to leave these young people and their lives, their cities — Detroit, New Orleans, regions of New York far-flung from his own tight nook of Manhattan — behind. He’s collecting their stories, not becoming a part of them.
What Johnny cannot leave behind, by contrast, is his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), who re-enters his life, after some time apart, as a last-minute favor to his sister, Viv (Gabbie Hofffman), from whom Johnny has grown somewhat distant. This being family, there’s no ending the tape, packing up one’s mic, and escaping on the next flight. And because family also means history, there’s an added urgency to Johnny sticking around. At the start of the movie, Johnny and Viv have only reconnected because it is the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death from a brain tumor. What seems to have arisen in the interim is an unannounced estrangement between them. Not a no-contact policy, exactly, but a vacuum of words. You can tell from the first that these are two people who have spent the last year not knowing what to say to each other.
But now they’re talking. Now, Viv’s husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is struggling — “again,” Johnny might once, in one of their many arguments over the subject, have been prone to say. Paul, a promising mid-career classical music conductor, is bipolar. He happens also to not be fond of long-term, in-patient treatment, for the very human reason that he is afraid. But a move to Oakland for a rare conducting job — a relocation from the familiar environs of home to new streets, a new schedule, and a new life — has thrown him a little off-center. So off Viv goes for a few days, leaving Jesse in the care of uncle Johnny. The days become a week. The week gets extended. Before we know it, Johnny has returned to New York. And Jesse — a force of nature, if ever there were one — has come with him.
C’mon C’mon, which was written by Mills, is a film with a lot on its mind, a beet-red, still-pumping heart on its sleeve, and more than a few stylistic and dramatic devices at its disposal. In the wrong hands, it might merely have amounted to treacly indie bullshit — its hazy, sensuous, black-and-white images are no disguise. On the surface, Mills knowingly risks an outdated over-reliance on thrown-pasta filmmaking and character quirks. And the integration of Johnny’s interviews with young people gives the movie a backbone of documentary reality that isn’t so distant from the industry’s current taste for realist cred by way of nonprofessional actors.
But Mills weaves these interview interludes into his central drama with a musician’s instinct for tempo and mood, with the drama itself getting further complicated by flashbacks, a bi-coastal split in the narrative, and an array of internal asides, such as monologues from Johnny that take the form of audio diaries. The New York stretch adds a pair of colleagues, played by Molly Webster (a radio veteran in real life known for her work with WNYC’s Radiolab) and comedian Jaboukie Young-White, who add more flavors to the mix: good humor, patience, and extra pairs of ears for Jesse to mouth off to. Intimacy, conflict, and confusion are twined into a straight story through basic forms of connection: phone calls, text messages. The latter appear onscreen subtitle-style, stripped of any cloyingly effortful attempts to appear overly modern. Inner lives and thoughts are mapped onto scenes whose dramas we see but do not hear. (Not that we need to hear arguments, manic episodes, and the like to recognize them for what they are.)
It all has a way of making the world of these characters feel slippery and inseparable in the way that intimacy so often is. And so the movie’s emotional abundance abuts the granular details. God’s-eye views of urban life get intertwined with the feelings-forward minutiae of the life that Johnny lives and the stories that he collects. And his work can’t help but reflect back on his life. A middle-aged man can’t ask a young person to describe their anxieties about the future, their hopes for it, without recognizing himself as some version of that future compared to his own, younger self.
Mills doesn’t need to press this connection too insistently for it to register; Phoenix’s face, his slouching sensitivity, does half the work. And the characters’ day-to-day lives — the constant emotional negotiations of siblinghood, parenthood, and other forms of partnership — emerge as the core of a movie that otherwise feels just this side of doing too much. Mills and his collaborators’ knack for stitching it all together prevent the movie from falling into traps it otherwise flirts with. Its images are more beautiful for not being reducible to that beauty. Its editing rhythmically nudges us along without our feeling the prod at our backs. And Mills’s writing, paired with an extremely capable cast, carries us the rest of the way.
As a writer, Mills knows what he’s doing. Echoes and parallels are etched into the story just so. Look no further than the conflict that pushes Johnny and Viv apart. Both are still reeling from the fights they had a year prior over their dying mother, and in the years before that, when Johnny gave Viv advice about her marriage that was not what she wanted to hear. This is a sibling pair whose lives are complicated by various degrees of loss. The charge made by Viv was that Johnny was too indulgent of their mother’s tumor-induced illusions, too willing to play along with her child-like regression. That he took her side at the expense of others’ — namely Viv’s. Now, in the present, Johnny gets to accuse Viv of the same, regarding her husband and this trip to Oakland.
What Johnny isn’t, however, is cruel. So on the subject of one of his nephew’s stranger quirks — namely, his ritualistic insistence on a nightly role-play with his mom in which he is an orphan and she is a lonely mother whose children are dead — Johnny refrains from the tit-for-tat accusations that obviously avail themselves, of Viv’s overindulgence of her son’s illusions, her willingness to go along with this cosplay. But the echo is there. And it’s there again in Jesse’s restless temperament, his unyielding pivots between high and low moods. In the background of the film, one is reminded over and over of the questions Johnny poses to the youths he’s recording about their futures. And in the foreground, right in front of him, playing with his audio equipment, evading his gentle inquiries about why he is the way he is, is Jesse: a boy who loves his father very much, who may even take after him, if only as a matter of childish mimicry.
C’mon C’mon is an intricate, moving drama constantly thrown off balance by this Tasmanian Devil of a child, an unpredictable force of nature. Jesse: a kidult in reverse, an elementary-schooler who doesn’t hang out with other elementary-schoolers, who is used to talking to grown-ups — to talking, period, which he does incessantly, intelligently and, yes, wearyingly. Mills’ movie takes a sizable risk in this regard, deploying what has proven to be a death knell for many an indie: a precocious child. A cute little motor-mouth who’s a one-man nature special rattling off the details of tree fungus one moment, then bouncing off the walls the next. The tics of the darling, demon, indie child are all here. He’s shamelessly forthright with nosy questions that just so happen to nudge the plot along and get the other characters, Johnny in particular, to open up. (When Johnny spirits Jesse away to New York, he gets peppered with questions like “Why aren’t you married?” – through which the move reveals that Johnny is still recovering from a breakup — and “Do you have trouble expressing your emotions?”)
Jesse — hyperstimulated, ever-curious — is not the kind of child you can keep in the dark about his father’s struggles with mental health. He is apparently not even in the dark about the fact that Johnny once advised Viv to leave Paul, for their family’s sake (another seed of the siblings’ estrangement). Jesse is forthright until he isn’t, open until he isn’t. In the young Woody Norman, Phoenix has been given quite the sparring partner. Their relationship is a tussle from the start because, we’re encouraged to realize, Jesse is only too aware of what must be going on. He’s aware that there must be something up with his father; it simply doesn’t make sense for him to be out of school, all the way in New York, for this long. And Norman, a remarkable child actor, communicates that condition effortlessly. Knowing and not. Wise beyond his years, but limited to them, too.
Mills’ last movie, 20th Century Women, took a teenage boy and surrounded him with a gallery of startlingly individual, original, memorable women, whose role was not merely to guide him in the ways of life, but who nevertheless, in living their own lives their own way, accomplished exactly this. You walked away from that movie with the sense that the sensitivity of that young man would persist into manhood, and that it was in no small part because of those women.
C’mon C’mon flips the gender balance, but its stabilizing central thread is, in some ways, the same. Viv is outnumbered by her partner, brother, and son, all of whom (like her) have their share of rough edges. She’s in the minority; and this for the most part feels like Johnny’s movie, being that it’s his voice we hear above all. But the enduring effect of Mills’ work is that, with the wonderful Hoffman in tow, it renders Viv into its emotional center — even as, for much of the movie, she’s on the opposite coast, miles and miles away, and we mostly catch wind of her through the (frequent) phone calls and texts messages it takes to survive a day with Jesse. One incident, in which Jesse throws a tantrum and disappears in a market as a prank, scaring Johnny half to death, proves instructive. All the ostensible babysitting Johnny has to do — figuring out how to navigate Jesse’s swerving moods and cutting insights; reminding him to eat his vegetables; meeting him where he is when it comes to his nighttime ritual — amounts to full-time single parenting.
Only it isn’t Jesse’s father’s shoes Johnny has to fill. It’s his mother’s. It’s the mother’s life that somehow gets clarified in Johnny’s growing ties to her unruly boy. Viv is not the main character of this movie in the sense that we usually mean. But C’mon C’mon is to a great degree a movie about a mother’s love — and parental love writ large, with all the hard choices that this love demands, many of them necessarily imperfect. (Again, Mills provides an echo: Viv’s role as a mother in contrast to her sense that she was never understood by her own.) There’s a reason Viv doesn’t simply bring Jesse to Oakland with her, an option that would almost seem reasonable once it’s clear that she’ll be out of town longer than expected. And though that reason may seem obvious, obvious doesn’t mean easy. She’s protecting her son from the worst. Or trying to.
“He’s smart and he’s so weird,” she says of her boy. The full arc of the movie bends toward something like mutual understanding. The characters “grow.” But that’s not the interesting part. What’s more telling is the fuller spectrum of ideas and emotions Mills manages to cram into his tight, situational plot, prismatic in its ability to reveal so many facets at once. It’s strange. Each time I watched C’mon, C’mon, part of me wanted to resist it. But I couldn’t. Mills takes the obvious and uses it to chip away at itself. Even if he hadn’t, these actors, with their palpable love and realistic tensions, would have made something of it. Deeply felt sincerity of the kind that Mills offers can be a tough pill. You kind of have to be in the mood. But this isn’t a film that works despite those excesses. Instead, it makes a case for them.