Can we generate a special award for actors who have been rewarded for the wrong work? Joaquin Phoenix carried off the big prizes for his role in Joker, and yet his work in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon is the diametric opposite of his lauded turn. Where Joker was derivative and fuelled by dangerous messages about mental health, C’mon C’mon is honest, heartfelt, charming and refreshingly upbeat about the human condition. You couldn’t imagine two more different films, and yet Phoenix almost certainly intended this work to be a rebuke to the former. Of course, it’ll reach a fraction of the audience, but it’s worth trumpeting the considerable virtues here…
Johnny (Phoenix) is a jaded radio journalist who has fallen out of touch with his LA-based sister Viv (Gabby Hoffmann) and her son Jesse (Woody Norman); that’s largely because she has problems with her husband (Scoot McNairy) who has mental health issues. Viv asks Johnny to take care of Jesse while she organises care for her husband, and Johnny steps up to the plate. And before you can say Kramer vs Kramer, man and boy start forming a fresh bond, and end up travelling to New York and then New Orleans to interview young people about how they imagine the future might be. The holiday can’t last forever, but the connection between uncle and nephew might just be one for the ages.
Phoenix strips away the layers of artifice for which he’s been celebrated and delivers a winning performance as Johnny, who is shocked to realise such obvious truths as the hardships of motherhood; there’s a terrific scene in which Johnny tells Viv that taking care of Jesse and holding down a job is a little too draining for him to endure. Norman captures the effervescent energy of youth, and Hoffmann’s work shouldn’t be ignored either; she makes Viv’s struggle feel real, and not just a plot point to bring Johnny and Jesse together.
C’mon C’mon is Mills best film to date; shot in a cool but detailed black and white, and with naturalistic dialogue and performances, this is a minor gem of a film, low-key but never losing sight of the hard-won battles of parenting kids. Whether it captures awards in the way that Mills did with Beginners or 20th century Women is irrelevant; the acting may be what draws an audience, but C’mon C’mon feels like an exhortation to the audience to feel something real about such a honest, heart-warming film.
In the US, A24 Screening Room presents Mike Mills’s @cmoncmonmovie