Mike Mill’s latest feature, C’mon C’mon, is a beautiful piece about the human condition amidst a time of much-needed connection. It’s a film that delivers one emotional gut-punch after the other with a usual touching script by Mills and a dynamic trio of performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, and newcomer Woody Norman.
There are few writers like Mike Wills in this day and age. The way he captures lost or damaged humans and their need for empathy is impeccable. 20th Century Women (2016) is his most recognizable work, but what he did in Beginners (2010) was astonishing, as he used his own grieving process to peel the multiple layers of the relationship that his parents had. It is fascinating to see how Mills has matured as a filmmaker ever since Thumbsucker (2005). The director-writer is now back after a five-year hiatus (technically 2-years if you count his short, I Am Easy to Find) with C’mon C’mon, and it is yet another solid outing.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio journalist working on a project that involves him traveling across the country interviewing kids about their thoughts concerning the world and their respective futures. One day, he calls his estranged sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), to check in on her because they haven’t talked since their mother’s death. Viv reveals that her ex-husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), has difficulty dealing with bipolar disorder. Johnny helps her out by taking care of her nine-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), and the kid brings a new perspective to his life as they travel around the U.S. working on his investigation.
This could have quickly gone into a “wishy-washy” or “syrupy” situation showered with melancholic ooze, but Mills manages to keep things balanced without the film being too half-hearted. There is poise and beauty behind the dispirited storylines in C’mon C’mon. Mills still deals with some of his usual subject matters, but this time in a more subtle way– hidden to cause a deeper emotional cut. One may argue that this could be his most sentimental work even though it isn’t his most personal. Although that may be the case with people of my age group or just a tad bit older. Most of those who I talked to regarding this picture have connected with it vastly.
The issues of troubled families, not knowing what to do next with your life, the need for connection, and the essence of mistakes are what drive this tear-jerking vehicle forward. That’s why audiences have attached to it. In some way, shape, or form, people can parallel some of the movie’s segments to their lives. How the interviews play out reminds me of a documentary I saw at this year’s TIFF called Futura, in which the directors interviewed the youth about their concerns, hopes, and fears. There are also some similarities in its style with Martin Bell’s documentaries: Streetwise and TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell.
The answers to the questions provide new attitudes and worldviews to both Johnny and Jesse, despite their decades-long age difference. It feels authentic, which is a skill that not many writers pull off in their scripts in films like these. Each character struggles with expressing their true self and emotions towards the people they cherish because of past experiences, as some of us do, and suffers from the need for affinity. What makes C’mon C’mon a joy to watch is how it communicates itself to the audience with a warm heart, delicate performances, and a compelling story about the hard questions in life.