C’MON C’MON (2021)

One-line review: An adult coming of age story, aided by a kid.

Mike Mills’ new black and white offering feels like a documentary, a faithful recording of a memorable period in radio journalist Johnny’s (Joaquin Phoenix) otherwise routine life. Johnny decides to help take care of his young nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) when his mom Viv (Gabby Hoffman) must suddenly visit his dad Paul (Scoot McNairy). Paul is bipolar and has frequent breakdowns, and Viv needs to take care of him. As her stay unexpectedly extends beyond a few days, Johnny takes Jesse with him to NYC and other work trips. After some initial hiccups, the uncle and nephew bond, and by the time they part, they both know they have shared something beautiful. But will they remember these magical days as time passes? That is the gist of the movie’s story, but Mills adds layers and layers of emotions, points of view, conversations, music, drama, and some knockout performances, and you have a rich chocolate cake slice of life but without the cloying taste. 

Although the movie spends most of the time on the uncle and nephew, Mills says it is really the mother’s story; an illustration of how mothers, in general, have the excessive responsibility of holding everything together, even when they are coming apart. Mills illustrates this point about women with the simple scenes of Viv walking the dog Paul decided to get on a whim when he could barely take care of himself.

It took Mills a long time to convince Phoenix to do the role because the latter was unsure of doing justice to the role (his first outing after the Joker). Things fell into place when Phoenix realized he could model his character after Peabody-winning radio producer Scott Carrier and his matter-of-fact delivery style. And, of course, the discovery of Woody Norman during auditions. Woody, a nine-year-old British kid, who speaks with an impeccable American accent in the film, is one of those rare child actors who is in the business for the love of acting (quoting Mills). In an interview, Woody, also precocious in real life, mentions that he discovered his love of acting when he was around four or five and has never had to work for even a day for the rest of his life (all of nine years). The film requires naturalistic acting, a term Phoenix hates, so he decided to just respond to Woody in their scenes together, and the result is an awe-inspiring authenticity. 

The supporting cast is also excellent. Gabby Hoffman conveys her own delicate state trying to balance it all, Molly Webster, the Radio lab host, plays herself. And how can one beat the casting of Jabouikie Young-White as Johnny’s friend who helps take care of Jessie and whom Johnny describes as the best person in the world? Young-White oozes charm even without saying a word. Molly and Young-White’s casting implicitly shows us why Johnny seems happy although he has only two friends (Jessie’s observation); they look like bankable friends who have your back.   

The script is the movie’s backbone since not much is happening. Mills weaves in some weird but riveting scenes (all drawn from real life) like Jesse’s bedtime routine of pretending to be an orphan or Johnny trying to explain to Jesse what abortion means when he casually mentions his mom had one when she was young. And the cathartic scene of Jessie and Johnny letting their feelings out by shouting it’s not okay when it’s time for Jessie to return home. Mills allowed plenty of improvisation on the sets and allowed the actors to say whatever came naturally. One result of this is Jessie’s memorable line to Johnny “you have the intelligence of a deceased person” and Johhny’s uncontrollable laughter on hearing that.     

The film also takes a bold step of interweaving interviews with real children from four parts of the country; and the kids come across as remarkably mature and collected about their realities, whether it is about an incarcerated father or a bleak future with environmental degradation. Mill’s respect for kids is evident as he treats these interviews as stand-alone pieces rather than as pieces intended to serve the main story. 

Art reflects its creator, and Mills, as one of the most likable people in the profession- several interviewers openly state they “love” him- has made a movie about good people. Good people trying to cope with what life throws at them by being there for each other.

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