There’s a temptation to describe “C’mon C’mon” as heart warming. An uncle (Joaquin Phoenix) connects with his nephew (Woody Norman) and in doing so reconnects with his sister (Gaby Hoffmann), the boy’s mother. Aw, isn’t that sweet?
Well, “C’mon C’mon” is heart warming. It’s also funny and sad and unusually wise. But as its odd title might indicate, Mike Mills’s uneven, idiosyncratic, and often deeply affecting drama owes much of that warmth to an understanding that parenthood can be vexatious and unrelenting as well as sublime and transcendent. The movies are good at showing many things. Those particular qualities in that particular context are not among them. Which makes “C’mon C’mon” all the more of a wonder.
Johnny (Phoenix) is a radio journalist in New York, working on a documentary about what children and teens think about the future. He’s getting over a bad breakup. His sister, Viv (Hoffmann), lives in Los Angeles. The two have been estranged since the death of their mother, a year ago. When he reaches out to her, she says come visit.
While Johnny’s there, Viv’s ex-husband (Scoot McNairy), who’s in Oakland, has a psychotic episode. She goes up to help. Johnny’s left in charge of Jesse. “Uh, are you ready for this?” Viv asks. It’s as much warning as question. When things get further complicated, she needs to stay longer. Johnny has to get back to New York. Baby-sitting becomes bicoastal.
Jesse is not your everyday kid. Not that there’s anything everyday about any 9-year-old, but Jesse is a category of one. “He’s so good,” Viv explains. “He’s smart and he’s so weird.” Yes. He likes to listen to the Mozart Requiem and pretend he’s an orphan and he asks Johnny, “Do you have trouble expressing your emotions?”
He is . . . precocious. Norman makes the precocity seem utterly natural. Jude Hill, the little-boy lead in “Belfast” — another current release in black-and-white about family relations — is delightful. Watching Norman, you realize the limitations of delight. His Jesse is spooky-good. Anything less, and “C’mon C’mon” just wouldn’t work. Thanks to Norman, it works.
Norman needs to perform at such a high level to keep up his end. Hoffmann (”Transparent”) and Phoenix are just as good as you’d expect. For starters, they really do seem like brother and sister, something that rarely happens when siblings are characters in movies. It’s not just the similarity of appearance. It’s the combination of emotional connection and mutual woundedness. The wary way she laughs when Johnny says over the phone “Don’t worry” is as eloquent as a Shakespeare soliloquy.
Hoffmann spends most of her scenes talking into a smartphone. That should be a serious handicap. It isn’t. “You make this mundane thing be immortal,” an awed Johnny says to her of her parenting. Viv knows there’s nothing mundane about it. Hoffmann’s ability to convey the constant dance between desperation and exaltation in being a single parent is a marvel.
“Too many questions with that guy,” Viv says to Jesse about Johnny, “not enough answers.” Notice the similarity of their names. With those searching, deep-set eyes, Phoenix is like a bearded big kid. He has a bit of a gut. He looks woozy, slightly unhealthy, like a slept-in bed with low-thread-count sheets. He could use an uncle of his own.
Phoenix has a rare actorly capacity to communicate yearning — not yearning as in “moon/June/swoon” but as in searching for meaning and fulfillment. It was this capacity that made his performance in “The Master” (2012) so extraordinary. It was there in a different, sweeter way in “Her” (2013). After the Oscar-winning madness of “Joker” (2019), Phoenix resumes that line of investigation here.
Approaching families from unexpected angles is what Mike Mills does. In “Beginners” (2010), Christopher Plummer gave an Oscar-winning performance as an elderly man coming out as gay after the death of wife. “20th Century Women” (2016) had a very good cast — Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup — in a story about a makeshift kind-of family, centered on Bening’s single mother, her son, and their boarders.
“C’mon C’mon” is structurally loose, even ramshackle. Mills likes to intersperse aerial shots of skylines and such between scenes of emotional engagement, usually photographed as close-ups and two-shots. This lends the movie a nice rhythm, even if it doesn’t do much for narrative drive. Emotion interests Mills far more than action. Aaron and Bryce Dressner’s overly amiable score doesn’t add much, though Robbie Ryan’s marvelous black-and-white photography does.
The business about Phoenix taping the kids becomes an increasing annoyance. During those scenes “C’mon C’mon” could be an NPR-made movie about NPR that believes an NPR-made movie about NPR would be a good idea.
When “C’mon C’mon” works, as it generally does, it works so well the annoyances hardly matter. It’s a genuinely distinctive movie. This is something very rare in our culture. That’s something very sad, which makes the experience of watching “C’mon C’mon” that much happier. It’s a movie about optimism. That that optimism is shot through with a good deal of pain makes it all the more sustaining. Anyone who’s been a parent will find “C’mon C’mon” memorable, even transporting. Anyone who’s ever thought about being a parent might find it even more so.
Written and directed by Mike Mills. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community. 108 minutes. R (language — which is ridiculous, since there are no words here that any kid under 10 hasn’t heard — yet scores of people can get killed in a superhero movie and it’s PG-13; what a world, huh?)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.