C’MON C’MON (Movie Review)

Joaquin Phoenix stars as an uncle who connects with his nephew in C’MON C’MON, a stirring, unforgettable portrait about the most important things — and relationships — in life. It’s one of the year’s best.

**** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language)
Released: November 19, 2021 limited; December 3 expands
Runtime: 109 minutes
Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster

I heart-emoji C’mon C’mon.

Like, for real. I mean, you don’t even know.

People, all the feels were felt!

As I watched C’mon C’mon gently open itself up to me (and to anyone willing to open themselves back up to it in return), my heart grew, sank, cried, and gushed. It was broken, scared, healed and renewed. It was filled and overwhelmed, but through the most tender, simple, and honest everyday moments that any two people can share and express.

It’s beautiful and poignant and cathartic — and it turned me into a full-on crying emoji. crying_emoji

All of this, despite never once being cloying, schmaltzy, or even sentimental. Yes it’s warm and compassionate and sensitive, but it’s real — even raw — yet never in a gritty, hardened, or cynical way.

What kind of story could possibly do this? One that’s about how kids completely and utterly upend our lives and change them forever.

It’s also about much more than that (including being a snapshot of where we are as a country right now), but the paradigm-shifting life epiphany that is Kids — how they inform and transform and entirely alter how we see and experience the world — is what C’mon C’mon is fundamentally all about.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Johnny, a documentary filmmaker who connects with his young nephew Jesse for the first time. Having grown distant (though not estranged) from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), a life crisis suddenly necessitates that Johnny watch, care for, and serve as parent/guardian to Jesse for an extended period of time so that Viv can give her full attention to a pressing need.

What unfolds is a portrait about people — of broken relationships, how they break, how people move on, how they heal, and how they don’t — with an Uncle and Nephew at the center. There’s also a Sister / Single Mother who’s desperately trying to salvage life from the damage it has dealt and that continues to linger.

With Johnny (through Jesse), it’s the story of a single man who comes to appreciate at a profound level how a child can bring so much joy yet so much worry, and also make things so needlessly difficult. How kids can expand your own humanity one moment yet frustrate you to no end the next. How no amount of careful, considered engagement with a child can stop the inevitable emotional roller coaster from careening you through loops that turn your stomach upside down, in ways that can drive you crazy and even scare you.

For Viv, it’s a story of how the people we love can also become our heaviest burdens and completely break our hearts, yet we can’t give up on them — not out of dysfunction or codependency but out of genuine love and decency. It’s about how healthy people make endless sacrifices for the unhealthy loved ones in their lives, doing their best to help facilitate the help that these broken people need — and even want and seek — yet also sabotage and refuse to receive.

Through Viv and Johnny, we see how siblings often approach and deal with sickness differently, in ways that create tension and friction and exasperation with each other but also bond them forever.

This is easily my favorite role of Phoenix’s career, one that’s generally been defined by more intense, tortured roles. Here’s, the Oscar-winner is the most relaxed, warm, funny, curious and tender he’s ever been. It may not be a performance as showy or provocative as the Joker, but it’s infinitely more true and meaningful. And the connection he strikes with young newcomer Woody Norman (an amazingly available and emotionally open little moppet) is charming, affecting and poignant.

Together, Phoenix and Hoffmann create a sibling dynamic that feels one-hundred percent authentic, with the veracity of a lived history together. It’s achieved through organic looks, glances and a casual shorthand, as well as how they can charge each other up, but all in ways that are completely spontaneous rather than any acting calculations. These two people know and understand each other intuitively.

Gaby Hoffmann (still remembered by many for her precocious childhood turns in classics like Sleepless in Seattle, Uncle Buck, and Field of Dreams) is particularly impressive here, embodying the stresses and anxieties and joys of raising a child on her own while also dealing with her ex. She gives a tour de force acting clinic, so completely being the character that it’s as if she had been filmed completely unawares during her most vulnerable moments. (The fact that this movie has opened during the annual Awards Season and Hoffmann is getting zero Oscar buzz is absolutely insane.)

On the surface, C’mon C’mon is a slice-of-life piece, but it’s impossible to adequately describe how hard it is to capture life this honestly, this organically, this incisively and truthfully — but that’s exactly what writer / director Mike Mills has done. An auteur of contemporary indie neorealism (The Beginners, 20th Century Women, Thumbsucker), this is his most accomplished and compelling work to date (akin to, say, what a Noah Baumbach film might feel like if it weren’t trying so hard to emulate Woody Allen — which, admittedly, isn’t always a bad thing and occasionally sublime).

Perhaps Mills’ most inspired stroke is the documentary that he has Johnny’s character making. It’s built on a series of interviews with kids, each one sharing their views of the world by answering life’s most fundamental, existential questions through their own direct, unassuming candor.

While these interviews are adjacent and peripheral to the family drama, appearing as occasional vignettes, they also complete this movie’s whole raison d’etre. C’mon C’mon isn’t just a look at the impact that kids have on us; it’s a tribute to the adults who love them, who care for them, who try to understand them, raise them and nurture them, who want to give them a voice and leave them with a better world.

Aesthetically, Mills’ movie is simple and natural yet elegant, and while I couldn’t exactly tell you why it’s shot in black-and-white, boy does it work — especially for a movie that’s a portrait about people rather than one driven by narrative. It also frames the cities and bureaus of America’s urban communities into gallery-worthy landscapes and backdrops.

I don’t have kids. I’ve never raised kids. But this movie has made me feel what it’s like to experience that more than any other film has before. C’mon C’mon takes us through the emotional gauntlet, but specifically in the way that raising kids does.

Yes, in one sense, it’s basically examining things that we already know, but it’s things (about kids especially) that we all-too-easily take for granted, and that the monotony and burdens of life can distract us away from, even imperceptibly, and cause us to lose sight of.

C’mon C’mon fervently and starkly reminds us: don’t take these things for granted. Ever. 

There’s nothing more important in life than the responsibility we have to kids, to what their innocent and flawed and confusing inexperience can teach us, and to what they’re trying to tell us through their love, their volatility, their fears, and even their rebellion.

If you need your faith in humanity restored — and in our shared humanity especially — go see C’mon C’mon. It’s an essential movie about what’s most essential, one that touches the deepest stirrings of our hearts at such a deep that we feel heard and known.

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