What do the young people of today think about the world they’re growing up in? That’s what Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to find out. He’s a radio journalist flying around the country collecting snippets from subjects and ambient sounds from all around. He lives in a smallish apartment in Manhattan, doesn’t have a spouse or a child, and even though he has that middle-aged hangdog look, he’s not an unhappy man. He enjoys his work immensely—his face lighting up every time one of his interviewees says something genuine and authentic. Audio is how Johnny connects with the world. It’s also how Johnny shields himself.
I would guess that Mike Mills, the writer/director of C’mon C’mon, approaches the camera the way Johnny approaches the recorder. This seems most evident in the number of essays and book excerpts Mills weaves throughout C’mom C’mon. The one that stands out is a manifesto from cameraperson Kirsten Johnson. She discusses the nature of capturing and preserving moments that may or may not be meaningful to the subject concerned. What the camera captures will live on long after the subject has forgotten it.
But that’s just the backdrop of C’mon C’mon. In the foreground is Johnny and Jesse (Woody Norman), Johnny’s young nephew. Jesse’s father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), has severe mental issues and needs medical attention. That’s why Jesse’s mom, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), has to leave Los Angeles for San Francisco: She needs to find a way to convince Paul to check himself into treatment. Not something she wants to drag Jesse along for. Enter Johnny. Johnny and Jesse bond, Johnny shows Jesse his work, and Jesse makes Johnny play a very bizarre roleplaying game where Jesse pretends to be an orphan. Then work calls, and Johnny must return to New York. Things are not going well in San Fran, so Jesse goes to New York. Then to New Orleans. The more Jesse sees, the more his bottled-up emotions become untangled.
There’s real love between Johnny and Jesse and real chemistry between the actors. Phoenix has always felt natural in front of the camera, but Norman matches him beat for beat. They are the heart of Mill’s script, but the soul belongs to the interviews, which are threaded through the movie with such a deft touch that the line between narrative and documentary blurs. Even more striking is the black and white cinematography from Robbie Ryan, especially when it comes to the street scenes and insert shots. New York was made for black and white photography, and while Johnny talks to kids who worry about economic inequality and environmental destruction, Mills and editor Jennifer Vecchiarello cut together a cinematic symphony of steel and glass towers jutting toward the clouds, rivers of asphalt and concrete banking their way around those buildings, and sewer drains spewing pillow stacks of steam. To a nature lover, these shots might look like the inferno. To Mills, they look like one of humanity’s greatest achievements. City as expression; the city as emotion.
C’mon C’mon is all about emotions. About what happens when you can’t express them, and what happens when you do. All the kids Johnny interviews express anxiety and fear for the world around them, frustration toward the society that let it get this way. Jesse’s not there yet, but he’s getting close. He’s at the age where emotions come easily but without explanation. The precipice of whether he’ll explode or start bottling it up is right before him. It’s up to Johnny to help him navigate those waters and to remind him when he forgets.
C’mon C’mon (2021)
Written and directed by Mike Mills
Produced by Chelsea Barnard, Andrea Longacre-White, Lila Yacoub
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy
A24, Rated R, Running time 108 minutes, Opens Nov. 26, 2021.