Review by Eve Smith
Mike Mills’ C’mon, C’mon (2021), wants you to think about your inner child. One of the film’s most climactic scenes has stilted but loving middle-aged Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) screaming at each other in the woods that ‘this is fucked up’. Sometimes, the non-rational part of your brain just needs a chance to be heard.
Johnny hasn’t spoken to his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) since their mother’s death a year earlier. To deal with the grief, he has been burying himself in work, but he steps up to look after Viv’s son when her husband becomes ill. As it turns out, taking care of a child turns out to be harder than he once thought.
His job as a radio producer takes him to cities across America to interview children about the big questions of life. They are mostly real kids talking about their real lives. This lends the film one of its strongest tools: the authentic voices of young people. It uses them to set a tone of loneliness, frustration and hope.
Mills’ highlights that the line parents tread between dealing with kids that are acting up and kids that are simply misunderstood is a fine one. Through the phenomenal acting of the young Woody Norman, the film sustains a vivid raw feeling of dealing with loving a little person with all your heart, but just wishing you could glue them to a chair sometimes. One of the few darkly comedic moments has Viv entertaining Jesse’s unusual night time stories about being an orphan who is meeting a parent for the first time whose children have all died. Johnny is on a crash course of what being a mother entails; dealing with Jesse disappearing in crowds and getting hyper after too much ice cream before bed. The film stresses that there is a cheapness to Johnny’s invasion of privacy. Ultimately, he can always turn around and leave. This raises questions about what responsibility journalists like him, and by extension the filmmakers, hold when they take the voices and experiences of others for their own enrichment and profit.
The children’s authenticity occasionally butts heads with the more contrived elements of the film. When Johnny sits down to read a lofty essay on motherhood or the responsibility of wielding a camera, its title flashes up pointedly across the screen. These ideas make for an interesting addition, but the concept can stray into self-consciousness.
With its black and white colouring and polished storyline, Mills is clearly aiming to join the canon of cinephile classics. He’s achieved a deeply evocative film that does best when it shrugs off its seriousness and embraces the voices of real children who provide a rich foundation for the film. C’mon, C’mon is ultimately a story of carrying on when things get tough and finding an emotionally intelligent way to express what comes up as a result. Maybe the real answer is making the time to listen.