The ever enigmatic yet insanely talented Joaquin Phoenix follows up his Oscar-winning turn in “Joker” with a dramatically different performance in a much different movie. “C’mon C’mon”, written and directed by Mike Mills, is a surprisingly sweet and heartfelt drama that may look familiar on the surface, but that avoids many of the snares that often accompany films in this vein.
A warm and gentle Phoenix is once again in nomination worthy form in “C’mon C’mon”. He plays a single middle-aged documentarian named Johnny who travels around the country with his tiny production team interviewing kids about their views of the world and their dreams for the future. He asks these questions to a diverse group of children from a variety of backgrounds. Sometimes the answers he gets denotes hope and optimism. But often the responses are rooted in fear, uncertainty, and skepticism.
While working in Detroit he gets a call from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) in Los Angeles who he hasn’t seen since their mother died a year earlier (Mills comes back to their old baggage at different points in the film, unpacking it delicately and truthfully). Viv tells Johnny her bipolar and estranged husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is in a bad way in Oakland and needs her help. But she can’t find anyone to watch her eccentric nine-year-old Jesse (Woody Norman).
So Johnny flies out to LA, a little nervous about taking care of an energetic youngster on his own, but its only for a few days. “Are you ready for this?”, Viv asks. It’s a question you could also ask the audience. Because what follows isn’t a sudsy melodrama or a kiddie comedy. Much like the scenes with Johnny interviewing children, this is a movie about listening and connecting. Everything Mills does (the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the eclectic score) works towards that purpose. He wants his audience to listen and feel as his characters listen and feel.
Just as essential as Mills’ honest and heartfelt touch are the three wonderfully nuanced central performances. Phoenix brings a quiet and earnest sincerity to Johnny which really comes out in his scenes with young Norman. The two have a sparkling chemistry which only gets stronger as the story takes them from LA to New York. Norman is terrific in a year full of terrific child performances. Meanwhile Hoffmann doesn’t get as many scenes, but she does a great job visualizing Viv’s buried pain and frustration.
“C’mon C’mon” moves at its own subtle harmonious pace, muting any sense of showiness or sentimentality in order to keep us focused on the relationships at the core of its story. There are some good laughs, some genuine emotions, and a depth to its characters that makes us care about them and their efforts to reconnect. The movie does require patience, because (much like in real world) life often happens at its own pace. We feel that during our time with Johnny, Jesse, and Viv. It’s part of the film’s beauty and charm. “C’mon C’mon” is now showing in select theaters.