Following his bombastic and transformative Oscar-winning performance as the titular maniac in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix returns to our screens with something far more heartfelt in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon – a beautiful and poetic journey shared by a lonely, guarded radio journalist and his energetic, unpredictable nephew (Woody Norman). The film explores how children can be just as emotionally complex as adults, with young actor Norman rising to the challenge of portraying this in his BAFTA-nominated performance.
When his estranged sister (Gaby Hoffmann) must leave town to care for her bipolar ex-husband, Johnny is asked if he would be willing to look after her 9-year-old son Jesse (Norman). You know the drill – the two couldn’t be more different, but gradually find common ground and a respect and understanding for each other, and ultimately, themselves. But while the premise might feel familiar and even derivative of many films that have come before it, C’mon C’mon is far more than its story.
Shot in melancholic black-and-white, C’mon C’mon no-frills visuals allow the gentle and understated narrative the opportunity for a greater hold on the viewer – provided you’re open to it. This is a film that can appear rather empty on the surface and so the average viewer’s mileage may vary, but for those ready to absorb themselves into this quiet world will get a lot out of it. It is about both nothing and everything, with its genuine and sincere story of ordinary characters that feels almost like voyeuristic people-watching. Fronted by two flawless performances by Phoenix and Norman, this beautiful film is totally compelling as it applies a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ approach to its structure and delivery.
Phoenix is as incredible as ever in his calmest performance since Her, but it is Woody Norman who steals the show with one of the finest child performances in years. Despite being on the scene for some years, a star is born here as he deals with the complex role with the effortless skill of a long-time pro. Not to mention the young Brit pulls off a flawless American accent. The chemistry between him and Phoenix is remarkable, and the film’s portrayal of different people finding common ground is inspiring, reminding us of the raw power of human connection.
Phoenix’s character’s job sees him traveling the United States interviewing the youth of the country and asking them their hopes and dreams for the future, and these largely unscripted sequences – almost cinéma vérité in their realism – are among the film’s most powerful moments. Director Mike Mills included these moments to cover “a bigger spectrum of life from a young perspective”, reinforcing that theme of emotionally complex youngsters and how we as adults can learn so much from that. As we find ourselves in uncertain times once again, these thought-provoking moments couldn’t be more timely. And yet, none of the film feels preachy or heavy-handed. There is that soft and understated approach again, putting the quiet pieces in front of the viewer and giving them the freedom to make what they want from it.
C’mon C’mon is a truly beautiful piece of work that quietly reminds us of the value of human connection.