C’mon C’mon, Man. C’mon, C’mon, Man — a beautiful depiction of what adults can mean to a child

C’mon C’mon, a film from Mike Mills, presents an empathetic portrayal of a healthy child-adult relationship. It’s a film that thematically and structurally, shows the importance of perspective and seeing through the eyes of others. The Mills screenplay is framed through the profession of Joaquin Phoenix’s character (Johnny), a traveling radio journalist creating a project on the many different perspectives of kids throughout the United States. 

Johnny: When you think about the future? How do you imagine it’ll be? What will stay with you? And what will you forget? How will you cities change? What will you forget?

It’s a screenplay that asks probing, life-affirming questions of impressionable young kids that end up leaving an impression on us. However, the story focuses closer on the interpersonal relationship in Johnny’s life and the life-changing journey he experiences with his sister Viv’s (Gaby Hoffmann) son Jesse (Woody Norman). The experience is shared and communal – it’s the feeling of sharing a space and one’s life with another person. It’s the inevitable bond that forms and the unique dynamic that shapes and Mills gives us insight into one forming from start-to-finish.

At first, Jesse is unenthused by Johnny, even a little bit hurt by their past, but as the two learn more about each other, the more they see in one another. Mills makes these subtle connections and we see a bond forming through the compassionate eyes of Johnny and the wandering of Jesse. Johnny even has a line where he refers to Jesse as a version of himself. The joy Joaquin feels is unparalleled in those moments, not any of the terrifying moments in childcare. The moments where Jesse wanders away and snaps Johnny into a panic attack or having to guide a child unable to articulate their feelings into words. 

Unfortunately, the script has one downside and that’s Jesse’s father. His presence in the script gives Jesse extra emotional weight as a character, but the entire storyline feels undeveloped, making the subplot with Viv a mere distraction for the main attraction in Jesse and Johnny. The emotion feels forced later in the script, particularly around that subplot. Thankfully, the vast majority of the film is simply spent enjoying the dynamic between these two wily bachelors. 

On the other hand, the underscore from the Dressner brothers is sublime and helps drive the complexity of emotion into specific places. It’s understated but impactful with a sense of exploration flooding to the top as the songs and scenes progress. It’s similar to how Joaquon approaches scenes in the film, nonchalant to a point of subversion, but both the score and Phoenix eventually open up to more emotional complexity and the bigger ideas of the script. It’s what makes Norman and Pheonix click because the strength of the relationship builds gradually. The music does the same, almost underplaying the resonance of certain scenes before the music hits you.

Furthermore, this is some of the most grounded work Phoenix has ever done and challenged him to seek inward rather than out. He finds a piece of himself in the character and bond to Jesse and that connection eventually leads to us connecting deeper. When Johnny is scared Jesse is lost, there’s a real rush of panic on Joaquin’s face, unlike anything else he’s doing in the film. He lets himself go and feels all of it. Taking in every portrait of a moment and sucking the experience out of it. It’s genuinely outstanding work. 

It’s well crafted as well. It’s a film that frames shots like the little boy experiencing life for the first time. The black-and-white is a curious choice, but it does play thematically with the up-and-down emotional state of the film. It also looks amazing. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan frames New York city in a way that’s never been done before. The locations are understated, not yelling at the audience to look, but inviting them into the space. We see this in all the various cities Johnny visits.

Johnny: He keeps asking why we don’t talk

Viv: You could tell him the truth

Johnny: My mom died and we got into all that weird stuff?

Viv: That weird stuff of our entire lives?

It’s Mills exploring unique dynamics and I can confidently say I’ve never seen an adult-child relationship explored this honestly in some time. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s Jesse’s uncle and not his dad that allows him to open up, but regardless, Mills captures a beautiful moment in time. If only the script could’ve combined the two plots more artfully, it would’ve been a classic. As it stands, it’s still one of my favorite performance pieces of the year – Gaby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, and Joaquin Phoenix are all excellent together with layered performances.

Extra notes

  • I need to re-emphasize: I’m in love with the Dressner’s score and the sound mix on this film 
  • Joaquin Phoenix delivers a real authentic performance when dealing in this tone and pacing. It fits him, me thinks (but the man can play anything)
  • Mills has a talent for writing in this style and looking closely at dynamics. It’s not always perfect, but he’s honest about it


★★★½ (out of 5)

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