C’mon C’mon (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Stuck with his nephew

Mike Mills’ new film “C’mon C’mon” is a simple but intimate family drama which will grow on you more after you watch it. As observing the bumpy relationship development between its two engaging main characters, this seemingly melancholic but undeniably sweet movie gives us a series of small touching moments to be appreciated, and it is also supported well by the unaffected good acting from its principal cast members.

At first, the movie looks into how a New York City radio journalist named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two colleagues work together. As often moving around different cities, they interview a bunch of kids for asking about their life and their thoughts on the future, and each of these kids in the film gives each own interesting response to these questions as being recorded by Johnny and his colleagues. They are all bright enough to be perceptive about their present and future, and their unadulterated responses, which are incidentally unscripted, give considerable realism and spontaneity to the film.

While he is in Detroit, Michigan for another series of interviews to handle, Johnny calls his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), who is living in LA. As shown from several brief flashback scenes, they have been estranged from each other since their personal conflict involved with their senile mother who suffered dementia during her last few years, and their phone conversation is rather awkward to say the least, but Viv happens to need Johnny’s help right now. Her husband recently moved alone to Oakland, California, but he is still struggling with his serious mental illness, so she has to go to Oakland while her 9-year-old son Jesse (Woody Norman) is being taken care of by someone else in the meantime.

Johnny is understandably reluctant at first, but he eventually agrees to babysit his nephew during his sister’s temporary absence, so he subsequently comes to LA to meet his sister and nephew. Although they still feel considerable estrangement between them, he and Viv try to be nice to each other in front of Jesse, and Jesse has no problem with being with his uncle during next several days.

However, of course, Johnny soon comes to realize that Jesse is rather difficult to handle at times. Besides being a bit willful from time to time, this little boy also often does his own odd role-playing, and Viv does not mind this at all as a caring mother who has always tried her best, though, as she admits to Johnny at one point, she still cannot help but feel frustrated with her son’s eccentric sides sometimes.

Anyway, Johnny and his nephew gradually come to get along fairly well with each other during next several days. While he later comes to lose his patience with Jesse, Johnny apologizes to him in addition to talking about that with Viv on the phone, and Jesse comes to lean more on his uncle as spending some fun time with him. When he is allowed to use his uncle’s recording device, Jesse is certainly excited, and we get a little interesting moment as he tries to use that recording device in public under his uncle’s guidance.

Meanwhile, the movie also pays some attention to what its main characters are respectively struggling with. While Johnny is still haunted by his conflict with Viv over their mother’s welfare, Viv also feels bitter about what happened between them during that time, and now she has to deal with another person who needs her help and support a lot just like her mother did. In case of Jesse, he remains mostly cheerful on the surface, but, not so surprisingly, he has been well aware of what is going on around him, and we come to gather that his rather unruly behaviors is just his own way of coping with those personal issues of his.

Instead of pushing its main characters into clichéd big emotional moments, Mills’ screenplay gently and thoughtfully rolls them from one small precious moment to another. While often quoting the excerpts from several notable books including “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, the screenplay slowly builds up its main characters as well as their complicated human relationships, and a number of gorgeous black and white shots by cinematographer Robbie Ryan adds extra poetic quality to the overall picture.

Mills also draws excellent performances from his three main cast members. Joaquin Phoenix, who looks quite subdued here, demonstrates that he can be gentle and sensitive in contrast to his darkly intense Oscar-winning turn in “Joker” (2019), and his quiet nuanced acting is complemented well by young British performer Woody Norman, who does a lot more than holding his own place besides Phoenix. Besides effortlessly interacting with Phoenix throughout the film, Norman did a splendid job of balancing his role well between vivacity and poignancy, and he is particularly good when his character comes to have a cathartic moment of emotional release at one point later in the story. Around the fringe of the story, Gabby Hoffman brings some warmth and personality to her seemingly thankless supporting role, and I especially like how she looks constantly engaging even though she is usually demanded to be merely on the other end of the phone line.

In conclusion, “C’mon C’mon” is another superlative work from Mills, who already impressed me with his two previous films “Beginners” (2010) and “20th Century Women” (2016). While these two previous films of his mostly look at past and parents, “C’mon C’mon” mostly looks at future and kids, and now I see how they come to make a sort of big picture together. To be frank with you, I am willing to revisit all of them together someday, and I am sure that I will admire them and Mills’ talent more than before.

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