Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman
Writer/Director: Mike Mills
Streaming on Prime, Apple+ and other platforms
Johnny listens for a living. He travels the country for public radio, microphone and digital recorder in hand, interviewing people about their lives, their hopes, their fears.
Right now he’s working on a project which involves speaking to children about how they view the future. He gently draws them into conversation, gains their confidence, and slowly tweezes from them their most guarded thoughts.
Also, right now he’s been asked by his estranged sister Viv to assume the temporary care of her 9-year-old son, Jesse, while she deals with a family emergency: Her mentally ill husband has suffered a complete breakdown and must be convinced to have himself hospitalized.
And so Johnny, who listens for a living, finds himself in the 24/7 company of a 9-year-old who will Not. Shut. Up.
That’s the narrative skeleton on which writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) has layered this tender-hearted yet engagingly grumpy tale of a family in crisis.
Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny, rumpled and unfocused, like so many Joaquin Phoenix characters. Phoenix is not a screen chameleon in the vein of, say, Robert Duvall or a young Robert De Niro. Instead, he possesses a special kind of genius that bends the characters he plays to his own, seemingly inescapable persona. That’s no criticism — in some ways it’s the definition of a movie star. Think of Humphrey Bogart, Hugh Grant, Morgan Freeman — all those guys who spent their careers knocking on our door saying, basically, “Here I am again!” And we were glad to see them.
Johnny and his sister, played by two-time Emmy nominee Gaby Hoffmann (Transparent), have had a year-long falling out following the death of their mother. They bitterly disagreed over Mom’s treatment options in the final stages of dementia and, following her death, simply stopped talking — another irony in the fire for Johnny, who is supposedly one of the world’s best listeners.
Hoffmann brings a vivid mix of conflicted emotions to the role, and Mills has gifted her with some sparkling monologues about the love/hate relationships lots of parents endure with rambunctious kids. The story requires Viv to be physically absent most of the time, leaving Hoffmann to spend much of the film speaking into a phone. That’s a dramatic handicap that can encumber the most capable of screen actors, but Hoffmann uses the prop to emphasize her isolation and growing sense of helplessness.
As good as the grownups are here, C’mon C’mon belongs to young Woody Norman as Jesse, mining deep veins of childhood angst to create a character who dwells in the playful immediacy of youth while harboring deep — tragically reasonable — fears about what the future holds.
By any standard, Jesse is a weird kid. He likes to play distressing games that involve pretending someone has died. He seems to have the attention span of a spaniel in a yard full of squirrels. He swings from manic enthusiasm to seething anger.
Frankly, we’re more than a little worried that Jesse is showing early signs of suffering the same mental and emotional fate as his deeply troubled father. And, it turns out, so is he. It’s almost as if by purposefully adopting kid-world versions of the grownup things he’s most afraid of, Jesse feels he might find some way to master them.
He’s in good company with Johnny, who is himself something of a kid, vainly trying to hold off the consequences of adulthood. Through their awkward alliance, Johnny learns a bit about growing up while Jesse becomes more comfortable with just being a kid.
Shot in glorious black-and-white — a welcome trend in several recent major films — C’mon C’mon nevertheless paints a color-drenched portrait of a family pulling through some not-uncommon crises. The good news is they emerge from that crucible singed but not stricken, holding on to the bonds that were forged in the fire.
Featured image: A24
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