‘C’mon C’mon’: Mike Mills’ refreshing take on the labors and joys of parenthood
Joaquin Phoenix reminds us of his impressive range, while child actor Woody Norman delivers a breakout performance
Directed by Mike Mills
Screenplay by Mike Mills
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, and Woody Norman
Rated R, Opening Nov. 19, 2021
Some of my favorite moments in film, the ones I keep coming back to, center around the cinematic depiction of parenthood. Adam Driver in Marriage Story (2019) reading his ex-wife’s letter to their son, Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird (2017) driving around the airport after her daughter leaves for college, or Patricia Arquette breaking down as she “thought that there would be more” near the end of Boyhood (2014). Each film highlights a nuanced dynamic of parent-child relationships, and collectively, they’ve nudged me to think more about my own parents from a number of different lenses.
This all to say, directors have explored parenting before, and yet Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon (2021; A24) offers a surprisingly fresh take on it. The audience sees Viv (Gaby Hoffman), a single mom, on the other end of phone calls with her brother Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), who is temporarily taking care of her son Jesse (Woody Norman). Viv must visit Oakland to care for her ex-husband, who is having a mental health crisis. She plans to hire a sitter for her son, but is relieved when her brother offers to spend a few days in Los Angeles looking after Jesse. We spend most of the film watching tales of uncle and nephew, and herein lies the film’s genius: instead of the direct displays of parental care we’ve grown accustomed to on screen, Mills carves motherhood as the hole that is left when Viv isn’t there, and instead, Johnny fumbles to provide for the nine-year-old. C’mon C’mon leans heavily on the strikingly vulnerable performances of its main cast, each of whom inject the film with enough emotional pace to engage the viewer.
Johnny lives alone as a radio journalist, and his current gig involves traveling across the country, interviewing children about their hopes, feelings, and fears. Johnny tries interviewing Jesse on their first day together, but Jesse doesn’t bite. He does, however, take an interest in Johnny’s recording equipment, and the two bond as Jesse explores the sounds of the outdoors with Johnny’s big, fluffy recording mic. When Viv’s trip takes longer than expected, Jesse accompanies Johnny to Manhattan for Johnny’s next set of interviews, and his lack of parental experience begins to surface. Johnny doesn’t acquiesce to all of Jesse’s demands, and Jesse retaliates by hiding from Johnny in a convenience store. Johnny yells at Jesse, and Jesse doesn't want to talk anymore, so Johnny must receive phone counsel from Viv to help repair the situation. Later, Viv reads a story over the phone to put Jesse to sleep because Johnny is too exhausted to do so. Despite her own struggles helping her ex-husband, Viv still treats Jesse with all the same love and understanding, thousands of miles away. Where Johnny seems out-of-touch, Viv is effortless, and hence Mills shows the viewer how mothers can be so casually brilliant.
The film is told from a seamlessly shifting point of view, which is only partially omniscient. We aren’t given much detail on the nature of Jesse’s father’s mental health issues, putting us in the shoes of an angsty nine-year-old who doesn’t understand why his life is in flux. On the other hand, there are times when we relate most to Johnny, who is expectedly impatient with Jesse’s impish behaviors amidst busy work days. Mills’ precise framing takes us in and out of the minds of Johnny and Jesse, allowing both of their actions to come across as reasonable. Meanwhile, long shots of Viv over the phone show us how she calmly mediates her brother and son’s strife, helping them both grow in the process. The film’s key moments rely on intimate angles and perfectly natural expressions (here, Phoenix and Norman bring standout performances), and the black-and-white aesthetic certainly adds to the wistful vibe.
Johnny and Jesse find emotional closure in one of the final scenes, after Jesse acts out one last time. This is the moment Mills has been building for: Johnny has grown more understanding and empathetic, and without Viv’s help, he gets Jesse to cathartically release all of the internal turmoil he’s been feeling over the last couple weeks. Norman’s performance in these five minutes is spot-on; it starts with a perfect recapitulation of a nine-year-old throwing a tantrum, and the growth that Johnny ultimately ushers out of him doesn’t feel forced, as it often does with child actors. Before uncle and nephew part, the audience is gifted an endearing interview that Jesse records for Johnny’s collection, capping off the growth both of them have experienced through their time together.
The film is punctuated by many such interviews with real kids across Detroit, New York, and New Orleans. At their best, these interviews give the film an air of childlike innocence: many of these children are brimming with hope, despite often difficult household circumstances. Perhaps these children’s hope is also an ode to parents — especially mothers — who sacrifice in order to protect their kids’ dreams and optimism. And yet, at times, the interviews come off as slightly tone-deaf. They attempt to make the film feel universal, even though it’s not quite that. Consider Devante “D-Man” Bryant, a nine-year-old who was interviewed in New Orleans but shot dead only months later; the film is dedicated to Devante but does little to illuminate the challenging family lives of kids like him. While Jesse’s story is an interesting and poignant one, upper-middle class white families are no stranger to Hollywood, and in that sense, C’mon C’mon does not move the needle exceptionally far.