Five years ago, writer-director Mike Mills earned an Oscar nomination for 20th Century Women, a unique coming-of-age story and a testament to the “It takes a village” mentality in raising a family. It was one of the best films of the year, and it solidified my eternal crush on Greta Gerwig. Mills is back at it again with C’mon C’mon, which shifts the focus from his previous work’s teenage perspective to that of a grade school-aged child, and keeps the emotional stakes rooted in a kid’s ability to process the world around him (especially for one who might not be neurotypical), rather than the sexual confusion of a budding adolescent.
The core relationship is between a radio host named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix, back to his forte of playing eloquently subdued roles) and his nephew, Jesse (newcomer Woody Norman; it really has been a good year for child actors). Jesse is nine years old, and has almost no relationship with his uncle to start the film, as his mother, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann, herself a former child star) hasn’t spoken with Johnny in over a year, not since the death of their mother (Deborah Strang) from dementia.
However, necessity breeds compromise, as Viv’s husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, has suffered a relapse, and Viv needs to travel to take care of him until he can seek medical help on his own. Thus Johnny, who lives in New York, must fly to Los Angeles and become Jesse’s babysitter, forging a new bond while simultaneously trying to protect him from the worst aspects of his parents’ situation. Caught between his avuncular duties and his work commitments, Johnny brings Jesse along with him as he tours the country working on his show, watching him along with his two co-producers (Molly Webster and Jaboukie Young-White).
The odyssey between Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans (with Viv in the Bay Area helping Paul) provide opportunities for Johnny and Jesse to get to know one another, and for Johnny to get perspective on how Viv lives her life as a mother. Jesse has very odd behaviors, including a need for bedtime stories nightly, negotiating for bathing, and a fairly creepy roleplay where he pretends to be an orphan assigned to his mother (and Johnny) to replace a dead child. These are quirks that just about anyone will recognize in either themselves or family members who are just wired differently than others, regardless of whether there’s anything diagnosable. It takes a grand amount of patience and creativity to connect with them on their level and help them cope with the world around them, particularly those who won’t (or can’t) quickly accept the information.
Jesse’s worldview at times obfuscates just how smart he is, though, as he’s much more aware of what’s going on than anyone gives him credit for. One of the most beautiful scenes of the whole film centers on his legitimate fear that he’ll end up like his father, battling with a mind he can’t control. It’s brutally honest and absolutely heartbreaking, while at the same time an assertion that he’s already doing better than expected because he can recognize this possibility.
Peppered throughout the film are interviews that Johnny and his crew conduct with local children in each city about what they think about life in America and what they think the future will hold for them. These scenes — credited as “documentary interviews,” meaning they aren’t scripted and the children aren’t actors; the film is even dedicated in memory of one who was killed in a shooting after filming wrapped — serve as lovely contrasts to the main story with Jesse, because all of them are asked to consider what lies ahead of them, while Jesse himself (trained by Johnny to use the audio equipment so he can be an active observer and participant in the experiment) is by necessity inwardly focused on the here and now, too scared to even consider anything beyond the moment. He not only dreads what he may become, but he also fears losing the memories he forms as he grows, something Johnny and Viv had to experience from the other side as they watched their mother deteriorate.
The whole thing combines into a heartfelt tearjerker that also feels like a child psychology crash course playing out on the screen. Kids are happy, they’re sad, they sometimes feel nothing, and sometimes they don’t even know what they feel. And while all of us adults used to be in their shoes, it’s hard for us to truly tap into their lived experience in context, because we only have our own to compare it to, and the world changes vastly from one generation to another.
I saw a lot of myself and my own family while watching this, to the point where I’ve already told my sister that this is the “Uncle Bill” movie. In an inverse to Johnny and Viv, my sister and I used to be at each other’s throats as children, fighting over everything from television privileges to dinner options. There was never something we couldn’t brawl over, and we got so angry that we hurt each other often. Not enough to go to the hospital or anything, but enough to leave a mark whenever we so chose. As adults, however, we’ve only grown closer, finding comfort and support in each other as the harsher realities of the world hit us like proverbial bricks.
Ironically, it also comes back to our mother for us. She would always try to keep the peace when we were younger, assuring us that one day we’d need each other and put all the bullshit behind us. She was right on the money, but nowadays she doesn’t even remember that crucial lesson, because she too suffers from dementia. Unlike Johnny and Viv, my sister and I used this crisis to recommit ourselves to being there for one another, because our family is limited, and there’s always a way to lift each other up.
As such, even though I live on the other side of the country (I’m in L.A., they’re in upstate NY), I take as active a role as I can with my nephew, Teddy. He’s three now (I visited for his birthday on Halloween), and I talk to him as much as I can. I even got to do so accidentally in the wee hours this morning (for me, anyway), because the screen-obsessed toddler grabbed my sister’s phone and accidentally dialed me while they were getting ready to head out for the day. Sis put the phone in her purse, neither she nor my brother-in-law noticing there was an active call — and of course Teddy doesn’t quite understand fully how phones work, so he couldn’t clue them in — and I just listened in for 20 minutes of happy times. When the phone bumped inside the purse and disconnected, I called them back to let them in on the unintentional gag, and we had a great laugh.
I take my job as Uncle Bill very seriously, and watching the rapport form between Johnny and Jesse got me choked up on more than one occasion, because that’s the type of uncle I want to be, and the type of parent I want to be if I’m ever lucky enough to have kids of my own. I want to protect them from all the bad things in the world, but also let them know that it’s okay to not be okay. Reaching a kid is hard work, and I’m amazed watching my sister and her husband as they develop this young life. I’m mostly a spectator, but I relish the chances I get to add my own little bit of contribution to the proceedings.
There’s something almost magical about it, which Mike Mills gets across brilliantly, both through the absolutely stellar performances, as well as the dreamlike use of black-and-white cinematography. This is a profound, poetic piece that wears its tearjerker status like a badge of honor. By the time you hear Joaquin Phoenix read Claire Nivola’s “Star Child” to young Woody Norman, with the latter teasing the former for crying, you’ll be wiping your own tears away, wanting to hug the nearest munchkin in your life.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a loving auntie or uncle? What do you think about when you think about the future? Let me know!