‘C’mon C’mon’: Joaquin Phoenix Leads an Introspective Drama of Joy and Sorrow

We need stories that are about how the mundane aspects of daily life hide real drama. “C’mon C’mon” engages us with regular people who live through those cruel hurdles that life likes to toss our way. This is the latest drama from Mike Mills, a director who walks a fine line between sorrow and humor. Laughter is a tonic in a Mills movie, as if his characters have learned that sometimes all you can do is endure. There are few better choices to evoke all these moods than Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who always carries a sense of edge or sadness. He won an Oscar not so long ago for playing a portrait of tragic insanity in “Joker,” full of demented laughter. In “C’mon C’mon,” he proves he can also be vulnerable and relatable.

Phoenix plays Johnny, who spends his time traveling around the United States recording children sharing their thoughts and observations for a podcast-style radio broadcast. Making it through middle age, Johnny remains single and childless. His estranged sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), reaches out from Los Angeles and asks for Johnny’s help with her young son, Jesse (Woody Norman). Viv’s husband, a classical musician, suffers from mental illness and she needs to go help him seek treatment further up north. The idea is Johnny watches over Jesse until she can come back. Not used to having to pause his life for parental duties, Johnny figures he can take Jesse with him to New York City and have him tag along while he works. Lingering over Johnny and Viv are also the memories of their mother’s death and how it helped break their bond for a time.  

Many directors have running obsessions or themes that color all of their work. Mills is absorbed by the passage of generations and how our quirks and scars cast long shadows.“Humor can be used to point out or expose darker feelings. I feel they exist in a swirly, interwoven way,” Mills told Entertainment Voice,  “I enjoy having both. I think that’s how I live. I think that’s how my family was, because it’s kind of in all of my movies, a little bit, right? It could be my parents’ sense of humor and my sister’s sense of humor. It’s the way my house was built.” In his best known films no family is perfect, because every individual has their own baggage and stories. 2010’s “Beginners” was about an artist who keeps sabotaging his own relationships, while his father finally feels free to come out as gay at the age of 75. “C’mon C’mon” is about a different kind of relationship, this time between siblings who came apart through the death of their mother. Mills again cuts between the past and present, flashing back to Johnny and Viv dealing with their mother’s declining state. Johnny was the one willing to indulge her deliriums while bedridden, while Viv would take a more stern approach. This happens in families, when the trials of caring for aging parents can bring out frustrations and differing personalities. The entire film is in black and white, which seems to be more and more of a gimmick these days, but Mills uses it effectively to create that somber sense of lives that can’t let go of bad memories. When Jesse bluntly asks Johnny why he never married, Johnny admits he still loves someone, but his answers as to why they’re not together are pitifully muddled.

One aspect of how original Mills’s screenplay is has to do with how he recycles old plotlines. We’ve seen this kind of story many times before, where a single adult is forced into realizing they can find a parental bond with a child. Yet Mills doesn’t make it corny or idealistic. Through Jesse, Johnny is learning that having family isn’t the worst thing and that while he may not see his life as ideal he can pass on quite a lot of advice to Jesse. Viv is so distracted by caring for her husband and putting on a brave face that it’s Johnny who teaches Jesse about the importance of being angry. It’s ok to find a lonely corner where one can scream it all out. A great irony is how Johnny spends his whole life recording children, and is naturally friendly and comfortable around them, but struggles to actually live all day with Jesse. “Honestly, when me and Joaquin both found out we were getting it, it was at similar times. Joaquin, kindly, I found out, told Mike he wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t in it,” Woody Norman told Entertainment Voice about working with Phoenix, “He’s so lovely and encouraging and so generous. I encourage anyone who’s a director or an actor to work with him. He might not seem like he’s that much fun in interviews but he’s the best. He’s so nice, so nice.” Mills turns “C’mon C’mon” into a film composed of moments which drive the story. The point is not about what happens to Viv’s husband, but about Johnny’s routine being upended by Jesse running off in a store or needing assurances when life becomes incredibly uncertain.

Despite how the plot may sound, “C’mon C’mon” is not some kind of depressing dirge. Phoenix brings a comic joy to his role with real sincerity, as does Woody Norman, who here proves he’s a great revelation as a new talent. He brings out wit and rage in Jesse. We sometimes forget to take kids seriously and never does the material approach Jesse condescendingly. He’s just learning hard lessons at a young age, like the rest of us. Gaby Hoffmann too is so authentic you would think her moments are plucked from some documentary. “Joaquin went along with this idea I had that we actually shouldn’t prepare together. We met for the first time on camera,” Hoffmann told Entertainment Voice, “I just had an instinct that the brother and sister characters we play are a bit estranged, so they haven’t seen each other in a long time…I just had a sense that seeing each other on camera for the first time on camera would be interesting and fun.” In essence, they all feel like real people who are flawed and can smile despite a few bitter scars. The fantasy in movies used to be that by middle age everyone would be successful, leading the perfect atomic family with a respectable job and weekends at the country club. Mills knows that’s all nonsense. His characters are not tragic, but sobering. We fall ill or can lose our jobs. Past relationships can haunt us, full of regret. 

Happiness is real in “C’mon C’mon,” but with a wonderful simplicity, like Johnny carrying Jesse on his shoulders through a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. By the end of the movie, there are no perfect answers, but there is hope. Moments where Johnny interviews other kids are intriguing since Mills used non-actors, and what they have to say is so insightful and observant. The next generation learns from the one that came before. That includes learning to make it through, listen and understand each other. On a more intimate scale, Mills’s film wonderfully captures how it really is about appreciating the little things. ”My kid loves to joke, he calls me Mike, and he says, ‘Mike, when are you gonna make a film where your parents haven’t died? What’s your problem?’ And they’re 9 and they make that joke,” said Mills. “I like to make multi-generational movies. That’s just life. I find it very interesting. To me multi-generational includes those who are dead, your ancestors.”

C’mon C’mon” releases Nov. 19 in select theaters.