Most of the buzz surrounding “C’mon C’mon” coming into festival season was centered on writer-director Mike Mills and Joaquin Phoenix. The former is coming off a five-year hiatus since his last feature, “20th Century Women,” earned him his first Oscar nomination, while the latter is returning to the screen for the first time since 2019’s “Joker” delivered his first Oscar win.
The two certainly deliver the goods, but it is the performance of young Woody Norman and some of the year’s most intimate, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that combine to elevate the film into special territory.
After taking a break from interviewing children around the country about their lives and thoughts on the future, Johnny (Phoenix) visits his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) and her son Jesse (Norman) in Los Angeles. Johnny and Jesse immediately play off each other with a playfully antagonistic energy. Despite being only about 10 years old, Jesse’s larger-than-life personality dominates any room he’s in, no matter how many elders there are or what they have to say about it. In the wrong hands, his quirks and antics might come off as grating, but Norman’s innocence and timing ensures that any resistance to his charm melts away.
However, Phoenix’s chemistry with the child actor is the other key ingredient. Audiences have grown used to seeing him in the transformative roles in “Gladiator,” “Her” or “Joker,” so it’s refreshing to see him shed the glamours of an accent or dramatic weight-loss. He’s one of our greatest living actors, and this is as warm, empathetic and vulnerable as he’s been in years. Attention will be paid to the flashier lead male performances this season, but this can stand toe-to-toe with any of them.
The film really begins to soar after Viv is forced to leave Jesse in Johnny’s care while she leaves to take care of Jesse’s estranged father Paul (Scott McNairy), whose mental health issues led to him leaving the family. Viv’s departure coincides with Johnny’s return to work in New York City, so he reluctantly brings Jesse to the Big Apple. Their somewhat stilted and awkward moments together at the beginning of the film evolve into emotionally honest interactions and even confrontations. The lights and scale of New York are realized wonderfully by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose establishing shots never fail to dwarf and sweep Jesse in his new surroundings.
Of course, none of this would work as effectively as it does without the tender direction and writing of Mills. Just as soon as the viewer is sinking into the film’s warmth, he pivots or prods the story and characters just right. There is also the undercurrent of both hope and fear with regards to life as we know it and what the future holds, and this is largely implemented through Johnny’s radio work. His interviews with the children – which I assume are real, as there’s no evidence to the contrary – can be hilarious, inspiring and heartbreaking. We get a peek into the lives of kids across a fractured and evolving United States, from Detroit to New York to New Orleans. There’s also the shifting relations between Viv and Paul, Viv and Johnny, Jesse and Johnny, and so on.
It’s a bit Terrence Malick and a bit Noah Baumbach, but “C’mon C’mon” still feels distinct and earns its emotional ups and downs as one of the best films of 2021.
“C’mon, C’mon” releases in theaters November 19, 2021.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."