Mike Mills’s latest, C’mon C’mon, is a touching, low-key drama about parenting, featuring a stellar Gaby Hoffman.
C’mon C’mon is now in Canadian and US theatres.
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The characters in Mike Mills’s films (Beginners, 20th Century Women) aren’t like typical movie characters. They’re often emotionally intelligent, mature, and worldly. They fuck up in the small ways that all people do, but they don’t go out of their way to create unnecessary conflict. His films are delightful, low-key examinations of human relationships, without any manufactured movie plot points thrown in for extra drama. That’s rare, particularly in American cinema.
Mills’s latest, C’mon C’mon, is no different. A subdued, warm Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a director of radio documentaries who is touring American cities to interview teenagers about the future. “When you think about the future, how do you imagine it will be?” he asks in the opening montage, and we see a series of Detroit teens give mostly cautiously optimistic answers. Johnny is professional and polite in his role as an interviewer, but Phoenix’s downbeat demeanour suggests that Johnny is somewhat depressed, as if something is missing from his life.
C’mon C’mon follows Johnny as he reckons with his familial relationships, and as a result, starts to think about what that “something missing” might be. When in Detroit, he gets a call from his LA-based sister, Viv (the wonderful Gaby Hoffman), whose mentally ill husband, Paul (Scoot McNairy), from whom she is separated, is struggling after a move to Oakland. Viv needs someone to babysit her preteen son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while she helps Paul get settled. Johnny doesn’t think twice before getting on a plane to LA to be there for Viv and Jesse.
That’s the first cliche C’mon C’mon avoids: Johnny isn’t an irresponsible slacker who reluctantly looks after Jesse; he’s a kind person who’s eager to help his sister out, despite the fact that taking on a parent role is new and challenging for him. He and Viv haven’t seen each other for a year, since their mother died, and that unresolved grief is still hanging in the air between them. They’ve got shit to figure out in their relationship, but they’re adult enough to know that looking after Jesse is the priority, so they set their scars aside, and even start to heal them.
The way brother and sister reconnect and bond over the shared act of parenting is the heart of C’mon C’mon, even if it’s not the film’s focus. While Viv is off tending to Paul, whose mental health is rapidly declining, Johnny continues his tour of US cities with Jesse by his side, first to Johnny’s home of New York, and then to New Orleans. We watch as Johnny and Jesse bond, and Johnny discovers the joys and extreme frustrations of having to look after a child. (As Viv says when Johnny expresses his exasperation over the phone, “Welcome to my fucking life.”) Viv and Johnny don’t share much screen time, but they’re constantly on the phone to each other, whether for a concerned Johnny to check in on Viv, for Viv to seek reassurance that her son is doing OK, or for Johnny to ask for advice and check that he’s doing things right with Jesse.
Gaby Hoffman only has snatches of screen time, mostly in flashbacks or on the phone to Johnny, but she makes Viv feel like a whole (extremely exhausted) person. She’s constantly managing other people’s problems, whether that’s Paul’s or Jesse’s or Johnny’s difficulties looking after Jesse. Hoffman conveys a woman with an incredible capacity to stay calm under pressure, even when she looks and sounds like she just wants to collapse into bed. Her voice is soft and reassuring, although sometimes tinged with frustration, as she coaches Johnny through her son’s idiosyncrasies, encourages him to apologise to Jesse when he’s made a mistake, and soothes him that there’s no perfect way to parent. Although Johnny is only hearing Viv on the phone, Mills includes shots of her on the phone, so we get to see, in one instance, how much tension is in her hands as she gesticulates while talking to Johnny. It’s details like this that tell us how much Viv is struggling to keep it together as she manages other people and never gets a minute to stop and worry about herself.
I wish C’mon C’mon were a film about a brother realising just how hard his sister’s job as a mother is, and how much emotional labour goes into it. That’s certainly in the film: we see Johnny tackling the mundane stresses of parenthood for the first time, like making sure Jesse eats the right food at a restaurant, and keeping an eye on him so that he doesn’t run away. With Viv away for several weeks, he doesn’t just get to be “the fun uncle,” but actually has to dedicate a lot of physical and emotional energy to looking after Jesse. It’s almost too much for him to handle, but as Viv reminds him, she deals with this every single day. Sharing that experience brings Johnny and Viv closer. However, with Johnny and Jesse’s relationship as the focus of the film, and Johnny and Viv rarely ever sharing physical space, C’mon C’mon doesn’t delve into the richness of their relationship as much as I would have liked.
C’mon C’mon is a lovely, gentle film that may make you shed a happy tear or two (I know I did), but it’s gentleness is occasionally to its detriment. Realising just how much emotional labour Viv carries should be a difficult thing for Johnny to come to terms with, especially because, by constantly phoning her so she can micromanage him, he continues to contribute to that labour. Instead, it all goes down a bit too easy. Instead, the film is more enamoured with the timeless beauty of cityscapes in black and white, and the romanticism of a cross country, multi-city journey.
That sort of overoptimism is felt in the interviews with teenagers that Johnny conducts, too, which are interspersed throughout the film. Mills conducted these interviews in a sort of documentary style: these are real teenagers sharing their real thoughts about their futures and the future of this planet. It’s a potentially interesting concept that doesn’t exactly fit in a movie that is (or should be) more about the little things, and ends up distracting from some of the film’s more interesting elements, namely, Viv. (These interviews imply that this is a film about childhood, when really, it’s a film that’s most interesting when it’s about being an adult who has to adjust their lifestyle to fit the responsibilities of parenthood.)
Moreover, many of the teens being interviewed express worry about where the world is going — climate change and social injustice — but they usually couch that worry in a “but everything will turn out alright in the end” framing, which is only natural for hopeful adolescents. I only wish the film had provided some counterpoint; as adult viewers, we know that a better world is not a guarantee. C’mon C’mon wants to believe in a brighter future, but in the process, risks romanticising the often troubling world we live in. Even the black and white cinematography, which paints a classically beautiful portrait of the US cities that Johnny and Jesse travel through, encourages this romanticised worldview. It’s a treat to watch a film this sweet and empathetic, but sweetness can coexist with an acknowledgement of the harshness of reality.
C’mon C’mon is now in Canadian and US theatres.
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