C’mon C’mon features one of the most unexpectedly cathartic scenes of the year: a child screaming. The outburst comes late in the film as Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) teaches his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) that it’s okay not to be okay. Johnny inspires Jesse to let it out. He’s a modern-day Howard Beale as he teaches Jesse to shout his frustration to high-heaven. Jesse expels a hoot, a holler, and a few deep guttural “arghs!” His outburst speaks volumes. It’s especially effective after he joins Johnny on a cross-country road trip interviewing young Americans and their thoughts. “Argh!” is a sharp and succinct expression of the weight kids today carry.
Johnny, a podcaster, interviews American youths about the future. They tell him about their concerns, mostly about the environment and affordability. They dish their hopes for a unified and peaceful world. However, the words Johnny captures from his interviewees are mostly safe, cautious, feel-good filler. Even though he tells them that he’ll stop recording as soon as they’re uncomfortable, they largely spend the interviews reassuring themselves, and the adults around them, that all’s well. Let’s face it: the world is effed and these kids have to deal with their parents’ mess. One doubts that there’s any kid, heck any adult, who doesn’t want to scream about that.
Johnny and the “orphan”
Johnny’s podcast at first seems like the one thing about C’mon C’mon that rings false. However, it gradually reveals itself as an effective commentary on contemporary communication as Johnny and Jesse give pause to the stories of kids from across the land. The boys learn to live in the moment when Johnny is tasked with supervising Jesse for the summer. Jesse mother and Johnny’s sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), needs to visit Jesse’s dad (Scott McNairy) in hospital. Jesse’s dad struggles with mental health issues, which take their toll on both Jesse and Viv. This kid’s been putting on a brave face while witnessing firsthand the consequences of silent suffering.
After making the trek from New York to California, Johnny finds Jesse’s behaviour alarming. The kid’s mostly all right, but he has one weird quirk. He roleplays as an orphan. Viv goes along with it and invites the Oliver Twist-like character into her home. The orphan asks about Viv’s “dead kids.” She humours him, awkwardly so, as she sees that it comforts him. Viv knows the behaviour is weird, but being a California-hippie-mum, she lets Jesse cope with his family dynamic best he can.
Johnny, so used to seeing kids articulate their pain in ways that are more conventional, is visibly alarmed. He quickly assumes the role of father figure. The engaged, ever-present companionship they develop proves therapeutic for them both. Johnny, still grieving his mother’s death, finds closure by being a caregiver again.
Tuning out the noise
Johnny’s role as a podcaster is especially helpful. Jesse, like many kids his age, is overstimulated and over-connected. (A point that C’mon C’mon humorously acknowledges as Johnny always texts and Jesse always talks about texting.) Johnny lends Jesse his microphone as the boy accompanies him on tours. Wielding a shotgun mic around the beach or in the streets, Jesse learns how to zero in in the sounds of the city. Rather than feel engulfed by the sensory overload of daily life, the microphone gives him control. C’mon C’mon is palpably therapeutic as the sound design turns cacophony into catharsis. Jesse lets the mic focus his attention and ground him. This proves especially effective when the Johnny returns to New York, and the sounds of America’s biggest and busiest city let Jesse discover himself anew.
Writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) encourages audiences to discover the elements of an effed-up world that make life worth living. C’mon C’mon is an invitation to explore the hidden sights and sounds of one’s surroundings. It’s a film about tuning out the noise, appreciating loved ones, and simply being real.
Mills creates a moving story grounded in the value of engaged interpersonal communication. The podcast, microphone, and ever-present cellphones illustrate how a generation of people have come to know communication as something that is mediated, rather than intimate. The kids can’t open up until Johnny gives them a mic. Similarly, Jesse doesn’t know how to express himself, even to Johnny. As he becomes comfortable with the mic and headphones, though, he becomes more articulate and records his thoughts and feelings for Johnny to discover.
A natural two-hander
Shot in gorgeous black and white by Robbie Ryan and harnessing a great sense of place in both Manhattan and California, as well as New Orleans and other stops the boys make along their podcasting journey, C’mon C’mon is a refreshingly humane film rooted in the here and now. Mills’ again creates robust and authentic relationships through the down-to-earth lessons that Johnny and Jesse teach one another. This film, like Beginners and 20th Century Women, has deep respect for characters of all ages. More importantly, Mills shares the wisdom that generations may exchange as we learn from the past and live in the present.
Moreover, the film finds a perfect match in Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman. Phoenix’s natural performance grounds the bittersweet comedy of C’mon C’mon. His Johnny is as far away as one can get from his Oscar-winning Joker. Critics often say that there’s acting you see and acting you don’t see. While Phoenix often favours the former, he truly excels at the latter. C’mon C’mon offers such a refreshing, joyful, sincere, and vulnerable performance from Phoenix. More surprising, though, is that Norman totally steals the film from him. The kid’s a natural and he shows remarkable emotional intelligence. What makes C’mon C’mon especially appealing is that, like Johnny and Jesse, Phoenix and Norman clearly benefit from each other’s company. They’re simply living in the moment and being real.
C’mon C’mon opens in theatres beginning Nov. 26.