dir: Mike Mills
I wish that I had seen this earlier, like, earlier last year. It would really have capped off the last, most dismal year hopefully that we’ll ever experience in our lifetimes.
Well, those of us who survived, I guess.
I was completely unprepared for how easily C’mon C’mon slipped through my critical defences and destroyed me, on a deep, deep level. There were multiple times where I was sobbing, and it’s not even a particularly “weepy” flick. It’s actually a quite joyous flick, in a lot of ways.
It feels like a film from a different era, and not just because it’s in black and white. It’s very contemporary in its efforts to get people, especially adults, to speak in helpful ways about their emotions, but it’s also not afraid to look at the fraught tensions between adults and children. A lot of the flick is Joaquin Phoenix interviewing kids. The kids aren’t acting. When they’re talking about the world or their parents or the future, it never felt like it was scripted.
My heart broke almost every time they spoke. They’re cautiously optimistic about the future regardless of their circumstances, but many of them can’t see past the dramas in their family lives. The kid who’s dad is in jail, and he’s there trying to get by, for his younger sister, because she’s all that matters…
I’m sorry, I’m already in a puddle again on the floor.
The film isn’t even mostly about that, but it does conjure up an atmosphere of optimism, somehow. Of hope. Not once is the pandemic mentioned. There’s not a single mask anywhere. I don’t know why that made me so happy. I didn’t even have to look it up to know that this was filmed just prior to, you know, all this craziness. That means this flick is like a fantasy, where the plague isn’t fucking things up for everyone across the world.
I don’t need to praise Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, because anyone that’s seen movies over the last twenty years knows that he’s okay at his craft. Plus he won one of those golden statues for playing the Joker in that appalling film a couple of years ago. He’s probably all praised out.
In this flick he does the kind of relaxed acting that I enjoy from him the most – on a par perhaps with what he did in the sublime Spike Jonze movie Her about ten years ago. It’s where he’s not doing the most acting, just enough acting to lose yourself in the character’s believable struggles and emotions.
He’s so good here. He’s playing a middle aged guy who’s just who and what he is. He’s mostly what he does, and what he does is work I’m guessing for something like NPR, which, from an Australian perspective, is like a weird combination of ABC Radio and 3RRR, possibly the greatest radio station in the world, but I could be biased.
Maybe this means that Phoenix, despite playing a character called Johnny, is perhaps playing a thinly veiled version of Ira Glass. I did see a thank you to Ira Glass in the credits, which made me feel a bit worried, like my thoughts were somehow shaping reality.
It’s not like I know what Ira Glass is like outside of the bits he records for the intros to This American Life, but it’s not hard to see someone very much like him serving as the inspiration for this character.
He lives in New York (not Chicago), but he has a sister, Viv (Gabbie Hoffman) in Los Angeles, and stuff going wrong in her life requires that he travel out there for once.
Things are not great between brother and sister. It’s clear through montages that they fought over stuff related to their ailing mother’s care, before she presumably passed on, and disagreements over her relationship with her husband. But she needs him, and he heeds the call.
The actual problem that’s come up is that her husband, or ex-husband, who lives with bipolar, is experiencing a distressed state where he is in Oakland, and she, given her nature, needs to go and help him as best she can.
She has a nine-year-old son, though, being Jesse (Woody Norman). Johnny barely knows Jesse, and knows nothing about kids. Irony upon irony, since we see him being so empathetic and gentle in interviewing the other kids in the film.
He doesn’t know how to look after kids, not having had kids himself, or any relationship that might have produced said offspring. Kids are weird. This kid is weird, but not in any way inconsistent with how weird kids are.
I read a review of this flick, a somewhat unkind one, saying that the kid was too strange, too precocious and unbelievable as a child, saying and doing insane things like deliberately walking away from a guardian or parent multiple times in the big city, or being unusually obsessed with orphans.
Man, tell me you’ve never brought up a kid without telling me you’ve never brought up a kid.
Jesse is a bit obnoxious and odd, in the way all kids are odd when you’re with them one on one 24 hours a day. It’s a delightful performance. And anyone who would question whether a kid would be able to eventually express themselves in such an emotionally articulate manner, well, maybe it’s no small mercy that that’s what they’re equipping them with these days in schools, which is about bloody time.
Not like back in my day, no. The schools run by the Catholic Church insisted that you never express your emotions about anything, because that was how the devil got you. And you especially had to never cry about or tell what members of the Catholic Church hierarchy might have done to you…
The film is entirely about finding the right way to be emotionally honest with a kid, so that a kid can feel safe and be emotionally honest with you. It seems like such a strange premise for a movie, but that’s because we (I) have become programmed to expect movies to be about insurmountable grief and cold fury, and nothing else.
Maybe envy, but that’s about it. Johnny and Jesse slowly bond over the fact that they’re just two people, in the world, related genetically but that doesn’t mean much, who are both often baffled by the world and each other, but in finding ways to support and love each other, and understand the other people in their lives a bit better, everyone is helped, everyone benefits. Johnny gets to learn more about his sister through her son, and Jesse learns more about his mother through Johnny.
And that all happens amidst new experiences for both of them, travel to multiple cities, but also in the mundane aspects of getting through every day; meals, sleeps, baths, all that everyday stuff, which is far more universal than the luxury of travelling across the States in order to interview kids for a radio program.
I am utterly destroyed (in a good way, in the best way) by almost all the choices made in this flick, from the cinematography, to the way texts are depicted on screen, to the mini-essays read aloud (the strongest of which encapsulates some of the thornier aspects to do with motherhood from Viv’s perspective that hits some of the same notes that The Lost Daughter also aimed for, without the child endangerment or murder by hatpin, of course).
It’s surreal what impact black and white cinematography has on these well known, much filmed cities. New York of course always looks like the sublime metropolis that it does in b&w, but LA looks haunted. New Orleans looks like it should only be filmed in b&w, making it look even more supernatural than it already does. All of the acting, all of the music, every choice felt like the perfect comforting hug from someone you’ve missed and haven’t been able to hug for about, oh, two years or so. I find myself incapable of levelling any criticism or finding a single fault with anything I experienced.
It’s a bit rich that Johnny can fly around the country and afford to fly Jesse around with him too, very privileged, but had they stuck with a more realistic or prosaic way of telling the story, there would have been no way to show Jesse reacting to the enormity of the metropolis, or meeting the other people they meet along the way. And we wouldn’t have had those great shots of the other cities, just bloody LA.
And then we wouldn’t have had the heartbreakingly beautiful images of the parade, and Johnny offering to piggyback Jesse, and so many other scenes…
It reminded me a tiny bit of Kramer Vs Kramer, but that’s not a problem. It’s also a flick comfortable with representing a familial, loving, guardian relationship between a grown-arse man and a little kid that you just don’t get to see anymore because of the connotations and because this is the fucked up paranoid world we live in.
It’s a loving, empathetic and quietly joyful movie where not much happens and lots of stuff is talked about, and I loved almost every second of it and cried too much at everything. It’s probably my favourite film of 2021.
10 times I hope I never get so old or cynical that this film doesn’t still bring me joy out of 10
“Over the years, you will try to make sense of that happy, sad, full, empty, always-shifting life you're in. And when the time comes to return to your star, it may be hard to say goodbye to that strangely beautiful world.” - C’mon C’mon