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‘C’mon C’mon' is an intimate portrait of the mysteries and questions children so often bring to life

November 24, 2021
5 min read time

‘C’mon C’mon,’ is one of those rare dramedies audiences don’t receive often enough. It’s a movie about life, love and figuring things out along the way. It’s also a perfect piece for distribution from A24 (who brings you such fare as Euphoria and The Green Knight) — in an ocean of superhero movies, a welcome island of respite. The film is one of those pieces that keeps one thinking about life choices afterward; about how we treat and interact with those we love, and about how (as its writer-director Mike Mills so beautifully puts it) we try to decode the "people we find mysterious." 

It also feels perhaps the most experimental of Mills’ films. In a canon of movies about those closest to him — Beginners is an intimate portrait of his father’s coming out story, 20th Century Women, about his unusual upbringing with his mother, and now C’mon C’mon, largely influenced by becoming a father — each piece has a sense of style, yet is so distinctly different, reflective of the real person they are based on. 

In C’mon C’mon Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny in a naturalistic and empathetic portrayal of an uncle (previously distant) who agrees to take on his nephew Jesse (an incredible turn by Woody Norman) for an indeterminable amount of time while his sister, Viv (a wise Gabby Hoffmann) deals with helping her ex Paul (Scoot McNairy) through a mental health crisis. Johnny and Jesse don’t really know each other, but it’s evident the two are more alike than they ever thought possible, making room for discoveries about each other and themselves. 

What complicates matters is Johnny is in the middle of a story for his work as a public radio reporter. In perhaps the most lovely public radio tribute in all of film, Johnny is traveling around the country interviewing kids about their future. Jesse now has to come along and he takes to the audio equipment instantly, offering Mills a canvas to paint an intimate and immersive soundscape for the film. 

Mills says the idea of a public radio reporter protagonist struck him very early on.

“It’s a really personal story between this man and this kid, and kids in general and this landscape they are walking through. In my career, I’ve also had a chance to interview kids or groups of people and I’ve always been inspired by the experience. I need three big pieces before I can start writing, and these were the first elements. I also love "This American Life" and Studs Terkel… It was enjoyable to be there in that space and give Johnny that job.”

With the fall and winter movie season in full swing, there’s undeniable awards buzz surrounding Phoenix’s natural performance. Anyone who has thrown more of their life into work than creating a family will relate to Phoenix’s sense of longing for something — maybe something he can discover in Jesse.

Mills effused about his process with Phoenix, “It sticks out how inclusive he was to me and how collaborative the whole thing was. He’s very funny, and he laughs so hard after the end of the day… We would read the script out loud a lot together and I would act out all the other parts, and we’d sit and think about the whole thing together and he was fully engaged every single time. We’d talk about Johnny’s relationship with his sister and about story and he was very concerned things would never feel cliché or expositional, or virtue signal-y… I’ve never experienced something so collaborative.” 

There’s a certain feeling one experiences after watching the movie. It’s a space filled with love and curiosity, and somehow manages to encompass the exhaustion of a middle-aged man who is simultaneously reinvigorated by the energy and newness of filling all gaps of time with a very young man indeed.

Mills explains it simply, “What you are feeling is the space that happens between me and my kid. It’s a tiny but huge and impactful immersive space…. I like writing about someone I know and love and someone who is also a mystery to me...how the personal connects to me. I wrote alone for a year and a half and then I’d meet [with] Joaquin and the script — it went to finishing school. And then when Gabby came on board — she’s so smart and interesting, and her opinions and feelings — I wanted that to additionally help shape the character.” 

The choice of making the film black and white also works to transport a person with that feeling of timelessness. The film includes the use of many moving cellphone conversations between Johnny and Viv, but the movie could have taken place yesterday, tomorrow, or ten years ago. It’s particularly striking during the public radio-style interviews where the kids are struck by fears for the planet, but they’re equally struck by the universal fear of going through life alone — something so universal and simple that cuts right through other problems that feel so large and complicated and impossible to tackle.

Mills states the black and white decision was made for a lot of different reasons, “... but the image of the child and the man…that fable-like archetypal image, it can take you out of reality. It felt fresh and simple and there’s a directness to it. It doesn’t feel fancy. It’s just black and white lines… Black and white can also be a gentle space. I was listening to a lot of Satie music while writing this, and that’s a lovely space…a space you can enter and walk around in, like it’s talking at you in a quiet voice. It’s also less media hitting your brain. You can lean in towards it in a soft, natural, light way. I find it very comfortable and it allows you to enter more easily.”

This lovely and unique energy to the film brings about much motion, perhaps representing Johnny’s unsettled life and travels, or Jesse’s pure and raw energy. Mills elaborates, “Movies are time... A time in your life that you’re going through. Watching a movie is also a specific time experience, and to me it’s also a tension, and in this, the camera is physicalizing that tension. It adds a cinematic layer. Space is changing in time…which is cinema. It’s an ephemeral/ temporal time-based art itself.”

Music also helps paint Mills’ canvas here thanks to an incredible collaboration with Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National who composed the score.

“They helped me so much in the making of the film. I wrote some of the script in their studio. With the music, it was a long process with a lot of back and forth. Sometimes just changing one of the chords or just one note would give us that right feeling of place. It was a very long process, and I do it as I edit… As I’m showing cuts I’m auditioning the score. Not a lot of people do that, but it’s central to the film.”

Even though this movie is primarily about the love of a nephew and an uncle, it’s ultimately a movie about the big unknowns parenthood of any type can cause one to confront. It does a lovely job of creating a complete moment of presence tending to a child requires. When asked what he felt he captured about parenthood, Mills states it largely boiled down to some of the small, quiet moments of the film for him.

“It’s a very simple scene. It’s when Joaquin is washing Woody’s hair, or when they are laying in bed together. Parenting is such a big, deep, dense jungle. If I got any of it accurate, then I succeeded. Everyone has different parenting worlds, but when Woody is asleep on the bed, and Johnny texts that quiet picture to Jesse’s mom — that’s parenting. That’s what it feels like… There are also all these moments where you feel that you don’t have the intelligence to pull it off. That’s just part of the frequencies you will enter. I hope I was able to show that.”

Ultimately it feels Mills is asking us to ask more questions just as Johnny does in his work, just as Jesse does in any interaction, as do most just barely approaching the age of ten, as do parents feeling lost, or humans in general in the midst of a breakdown. Life is not black and white, but it’s a very nice world to live in and to be reminded that — for at least an hour and forty-eight minutes — we don’t have to be any other place but the here and now.

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