I’m not really sure at what point Joaquin Phoenix became a “weird” actor. My best guess lies in his strange publicity stunt of retiring from acting and becoming a rapper for the Casey Affleck “documentary” I’m Still Here, or maybe it was his super intense physical transformation for Joker, which bagged him his first Oscar in 2020, or maybe it’s his unwavering dedication to the cause of animal rights, using said Oscar speech to spread awareness for the cause. I don’t know where it started, but there’s this understanding that Phoenix is now a “weird” actor in the industry, almost setting aside his ability to still be a soft, tender actor. I truly believe that the love for his Joker performance (which I think is fine) comes from the quieter, gentler moments of the film that are juxtaposed so jarringly with the film’s violent, nihilistic point of view as it goes on. Phoenix is someone who you want to root for until he gives you a reason not to, and to see that element of his craft shafted for the big, weird roles makes me a bit sad. And then along came C’mon C’mon, a gentle role to shame all other gentle roles.
Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a podcaster based in New York who travels the country with his producing partner, Roxanne (Molly Webster), interviewing children about their views of the future and the world that adults are leaving for them. When his brother-in-law, Paul (Scoot McNairy), must be hospitalized for severe bipolar disorder, his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) asks Johnny to travel to Los Angeles to look after his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman) as she deals with the situation. As the situation moves slower than anticipated, Johnny then takes Jesse back to New York to work, forming a complicated, but deep bond with his estranged nephew.
Directed by Mike Mills, C’mon C’mon pairs wonderfully with his previous two features, Beginners and 20th Century Women, creating a trilogy of films focusing on fatherhood, motherhood, and the children themselves. Mills’s films are unique to this new era of film as they’re simply films about good people trying their best to do a good job in life. These are not overly complicated or esoteric films, but rather ones that tap deeply into the void of human emotion missing from many films these days. That’s not to say C’mon C’mon is emotionally manipulative, not by a long shot. There is simply a deeper understanding about character intention, and the sometimes illogical decisions we make as humans when under emotional duress. Things don’t always have to make sense, and characters do not have to be likable 100% of the time, because we are not likable 100% of the time. The difference in Mills’s work is that we’re able to see at least some semblance of ourselves in the work, which I have yet to not do with any of his films.
Phoenix, as stated before, gives an incredibly grounded and tender performance as Johnny. He acts as a nice control group to survey the craziness surrounding the film’s characters and their lives. Soft Phoenix to me, will always trump crazy Phoenix in terms of screen presence, even though I find much of this presence to come from the fact that I know he could take things to 11 at any point, but uses his talents to a much more clever, efficient degree here. That being said, while Phoenix is good, newcomer Woody Norman is fucking astounding as Jesse. I’m not always a sucker for kids in film, and I don’t really fall to their charms particularly often in less subtle, more manipulative films as this one, but if I could be guaranteed that I could have a child exactly like Norman, I think I would actually change my stance about wanting children…that’s how good he is. Perhaps the most moving part of his performance is simply that he feels like a kid, not a minor written by an adult who thinks they know how kids act. Again, this leaves things open for the character to make illogical, sometimes incredibly frustrating decisions, but ones that feel entirely organic.
Shot in black-and-white and in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, there was a real chance of C’mon C’mon feeling like one of “those” A24 films where the unconventional visual style would override anything actually unique about the film at its core, but for reasons I can’t really explain, it really does work. The film’s monochrome design blends itself into the background as it helps the audience focus more on the subtleties of the characters and situations in detail. It never feels like a pretentious artistic choice made for the sake of being something unique, but something that lends itself to the story being told, and the 1.66:1 aspect ratio simply keeps things feeling personal and intimate.
This all leads to C’mon C’mon feeling like one of the more distinctly human pieces to be made in quite some time. Sure, sometimes it can feel a bit slight, but life is not always about the grand swings we make, but the day-to-day kindnesses that strengthen our connections with other humans, big and small. It’s about the sacrifices we make for those we love, and the terms in which we can form the love we have for those people. Family doesn’t have to be black-and-white, even if the film is. We have subtleties and complications with each person, and Mills so meticulously fleshes these complications out with an abject softness that floods you with emotion without having to tell you that you should be feeling any sort of emotion. Mills trusts the audience to take their own messages away from the film, and it’s no wonder audiences did that enough to have it tie for the Audience Award at Film Fest 919. That’s how you do it.
In select theaters November 19th, 2021.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.