Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon exists in a world that might have made sense in a screenplay but doesn’t translate to the screen. At its heart, it’s meant to be — I believe — an intimate and emotional journey between an uncle (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and the nephew he rarely sees. Only, their reasons for reuniting are suspect, and the methods by which Mills progresses his admittedly thin story aren’t credible. If and when the movie connects, it’s because Phoenix, an excellent actor, overcomes the narrative ledge onto which Mills has led him, momentarily keeping the film from tumbling down to the pavement and going, “Splat!”
The longer C’mon C’mon went, the more annoyed I became at its artificiality, it’s pseudo-millennial “let’s talk about our feelings” parenting tactics, and it’s broken communicative structure. There’s an audience out there for the type of movie Mills has made, but I’m not it.
The premise of C’mon C’mon is irrational, and only grows more laughable as the movie drags on.
Try this on for size. Johnny (Phoenix) is a radio journalist who’s paid by someone to take a small team around the country interviewing children for their thoughts on the future. “When you think about the future,” Johnny ponders, “how do you imagine it will be? What will stay with you, and what will you forget?” Writing these questions into his screenplay leads me to believe that Mills hasn’t spoken to an actual child in a very long time, if ever. Which also helps explain why Johnny’s nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), doesn’t behave like any child you’ve ever met in real life.
Here’s a standard example of Jesse’s bizarre behavior, even by the standards of Northern California, where the movie begins. Jesse, we are told, often pretends that he’s an orphan whose parents were killed. He’ll snap into this illusion with no warning, and his mother, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), goes with it, because to burst the bubble would… I don’t know, make the child sad and possibly scar him, emotionally? Again, the entire Zen parenting disconnect could be the reason C’mon C’mon aggravated me rather than moving me, but the film’s issues extend far beyond that.
Johnny agrees to watch Jesse because Viv has to leave. Her ex-husband, and Jesse’s father, is having a severe mental episode, and Viv feels compelled to be by his side while he endures it. But after a week or so, Johnny can’t put off his job any longer — someone has to interview these children about their valuable thoughts regarding changes in urban landscapes, people! So Uncle Johnny begins taking Jesse with him to New York City, New Orleans, and beyond. Radio journalists who interview children apparently make a lot more money than you or I do.
The structure of C’mon C’mon is fatally flawed.
For the bulk of C’mon C’mon, Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffman act into a telephone. They have to, by the design of the story. He has her child, while she’s tending to her ex. They try to muster heartfelt connections, but there’s only so much that can be accomplished while watching an actor on one end of a cellphone.
Instead, Mills would like you to invest in Johnny’s relationship with Jesse, but the kid’s so pretentiously insufferable, he made me pity the entitled brat of an adult he’ll grow up to be because no adult dared say “No” to his every craven whim. What Mills sees as precocious comes off as grating, through no fault of young Woody Norman, a child actor no doubt following the loose direction of his boss. The character of Jesse got on my nerves the minute he was introduced in the story, and spending two hours with him didn’t help the situation any.
Outside of the gorgeous cinematography, C’mon C’mon offers little else.
No matter how frustrated I was about the twee conversations and unbelievable relationship evolutions in Mills’ script, I couldn’t deny the stark beauty of Robbie Ryan’s black-and-white cinematography. The crisp lighting and rich black shadows give C’mon C’mon an Ansel Adams filter, which fits nicely with the steel canyons of Manhattan or the ancient trees found in the open-air Louisiana parks. If only the imagery captured by Ryan consisted of various still-frame photographs, sparing us the banality of the implausible conversations between characters you’d never find anywhere else by the arthouse cinema.