Synopsis: A documentary filmmaker bonds with his smart-yet-sensitive nephew, whose father struggles with bipolar disorder and is in the grips of a manic episode.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White
Director: Mike Mills
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The first role any actor takes after they’ve won an Oscar is always a bit of a hold your breath moment. In the wake of being the toast of the town, can they stay true to the career they’d built up until that point and continue to perform within their chosen medium? Or will they be tempted toward projects that are more about profit than art, resulting in their award being the only truly valuable selling point about them in terms of box office? Perhaps they pick the right movie that fizzles at the box office. It’s rare to get the Tom Hanks treatment and go for back-to-back wins like the actor did with 1993’s Philadelphia and then a year later in Forrest Gump.
Joaquin Phoenix won his Best Actor Oscar for Joker in 2019 so he won’t be Hanks-ing it but he’ll most likely be in the mix again this year for his work in C’mon C’mon, a prime example of how to land yourself a winner directly after achieving the industry’s top award. The performance is so good that it nearly erases whatever small discomfort this critic was harboring for Phoenix’s win in a role that was dynamically performed but found in a movie that lacked a moral center. Paired with a first-rate child actor (newcomer Woody Norman) and a former child actor (veteran Gaby Hoffmann), under the direction of Mike Mills (20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon gives Phoenix the opportunity to show yet another side to his acting that is refreshing, honest, and true.
With her ex-husband living in another state and suffering another emotional collapse, Viv (Hoffmann, This is My Life) is unable to keep her life at home with son Jesse (Norman) on track. So she calls in a favor from her filmmaker brother Johnny (Phoenix, Inherent Vice) to come and stay with Jesse while she tends to the boy’s father. Unfamiliar with each other, uncle and nephew take a few days to get used to their individual rhythms and peculiarities. Jesse, for instance, likes to role play a scenario where he’s an orphan being welcomed into the home, eventually staying for the night. A documentarian, Johnny finds his nephew fascinating but wisely keeps him out of his latest project which involves traveling through cities, interviewing school-age children and asking a wealth of questions about growing up in this current moment in history*.
As time stretches on and Viv’s stay with Paul (Scott McNairy, Non-Stop) continues to be extended, Johnny eventually has to take Jesse with him on the next phase of his documentary and that’s where the real bonding occurs. Nudging close to middle age, Johnny has no children of his own or any potential on the horizon, so any parental traits are learned (and earned) through this time with Jesse…and as you’d imagine it’s not always easy. Happily, Mills (who also wrote the film) doesn’t weigh the film down with a lot of “getting to know you” bumpy road introduction business. Instead, there’s a focus on how the older man and younger boy both benefit from being in the company of the other, an approach that deepens the richness of the experience as the film progresses.
Even as a child actor, Phoenix always has had this awkward tension to his acting but there seems to be a differently wired actor on screen this time around. He’s more relaxed and, while still soft-spoken, not dripping with the pensive and self-contained aloofness he’s often known for. Warmth was necessary for the role and Phoenix knows it, so he’s very much tailored the work to what Mills needed for Johnny and some of that also must have come from working with Norman who is making a smashing debut. Not the same kind of cookie cutter child actor plopped into similar dramedies, Norman (a Brit, if you can believe it) exudes wisdom beyond his young years without being precocious or cloying in the process. He’s a good match not just for Phoenix but the style and tone Mills is going for as well. I sometimes struggle with Hoffmann’s choices because she seems to be actively rebelling against her child star past but in C’mon C’mon she’s excellent as a do-it-all every person that realizes she needs help and is surprised at the result asking for it yields. I would love it if this entire trio could find their way into the awards conversation because they’d all deserve it.
The unexpected moments are what make C’mon C’mon so unique and interesting, not to mention emotionally fulfilling. In his previous films, Mills has shown such a great affinity for the people he creates so audiences that know his work have found a director they can place a certain type of trust in. More than once, Mills hints at roads he might take which could turn rocky but then he ends up veering in another direction. On a few of these occasions, I was relieved to see the film move into a new lane because by that point, Mills had me so invested on a subconscious level that I cared about the outcome more than I originally thought. That’s good, understated filmmaking and the result is one of the finest movies of the year.
*Be sure to stay through the credits to hear the real interviews conducted with the realy kids seen in Johnny’s documentary.