Combustible Celluloid
With: Joaquin Phoenix, Gabby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy
Written by: Mike Mills
Directed by: Mike Mills
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 108
Date: 11/19/2021

C'mon C'mon (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Listen to What the Kids Said

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While it may not sound like much, Mike Mills's drama is a rare combination of touching emotional transparency and a thoughtful, intuitive essay-like structure as it examines how kids fit in the world.

Radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is working on a project, interviewing children about life, the future, etc. He volunteers to look after his 9 year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), when his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), must travel to the West Coast help her bipolar ex-husband (Scoot McNairy). Viv's trip takes longer than expected, and Johnny ends up taking Jesse on the road with him to do his radio interviews.

Their time spent together deepens their relationship and expands their views on life, with Jesse learning to listen to sounds through Johnny's microphone. Johnny also re-bonds with his sister, with whom he had a falling out after the death of their mother. Johnny learns that kids can be amazing, and frustrating, and that mistakes will be made, and that that's OK.

Certainly there's a formula to the grumpy single man going on a road trip with a cheeky, precocious kid (with moptop hair), and both emerging as better people, but C'mon C'mon is not that movie, not in the slightest. Shot in dreamy black-and-white, the movie takes its time. There's no destination here... only the journey. Johnny (Phoenix gives his tenderest, most open-hearted performance since Her) coaxes moving answers from the children he interviews, but how to apply that information to life? And how to use it to understand his relationship with Jesse?

In an early scene, Jesse talks about "fungus tubes" that connect everything in nature, and that's a decent metaphor for the movie. There's nothing to do but go moment by moment, as Jesse asks pointed questions, throws tantrums, runs off, plays lovingly, cuddles, and imagines. Johnny recaps and analyzes things in lovely phone calls to his sister, and then each little "chapter" is capped with a reading from some kind of nonfiction essay. (Johnny's personal journals also provide breaks.)

The excellent performances — including those by Norman and Hoffman — and Mills's fearless devotion to honesty give C'mon C'mon a life pulse. Indeed, the movie is so much like tangled, beautiful memories that it may be difficult to recall the movie in order.

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