While the title of writer-director Mike Mills’ latest film is cajoling, C’mon C’mon is much like his previous work. This is meant as a compliment, as once again Mills offers up a film that is something of a delicacy—and also delicate. The sense of the former comes through in his film’s black-and-white presentation and characters; the latter via the careful construction of its narrative and the external sources that buttress its overall mood.
Framed by (mostly) real interviews, C’mon C’mon introduces us to radio producer Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) as he travels the country talking with children about the future. His easy rapport at work notwithstanding, Johnny’s mettle is put to the test upon being summoned to Los Angeles to take care of his nephew Jesse (the miraculous Woody Norman). The sojourn means Johnny must also reconnect with his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), deal with his mother’s death, and maybe even re-examine his own life; all this while also keeping an eye on the willful nine-year-old in his midst. It could be too much (and there is more still to unpack), yet Mills’ approach is gentle, following the pace of the workday and the randomness of childhood to shape much of his film. The structured contrast, between this tiny family and the broader world, allows for a careful examination of both. Mills also draws again from other material (books this time), literally giving voice to concepts and feelings that resonate. This is to the film’s credit—Mills doesn’t pretend to be re-inventing the wheel here, he’s just thinking about how it continues to turn.
As an actor who’s fascinating in the smallest of ways, Phoenix’s performance further refines the grain of C’mon C’mon. His voice adds to the many words of wisdom, mantras, and varying conversations that collect into the climax of the film. To be clear, even with the film’s emotional heft, the stakes here remain low. And yet, the film’s efforts do accumulate, providing not so much an answer to life’s mysteries as a useful reminder: we can figure something out.