Featuring an awards-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix and tender direction by 'Beginners' helmer Mike Mills, this intimate black-and-white drama is one of 2022's most moving films so far.
February 17, 2022
The last time that Joaquin Phoenix appeared in cinemas, he played an overlooked and unheard man. "You don't listen, do you?" Arthur Fleck asked his social worker, and the entirety of Joker — and of Phoenix's magnetic Oscar-winning performance as the Batman foe in the 2019 film, too — provided the obvious answer. Returning to the big screen in a feature that couldn't be more different to his last, Phoenix now plays a professional listener. A radio journalist and podcaster who'd slide in seamlessly alongside Ira Glass on America's NPR, Johnny's niche is chatting with children. Travelling around the country from his New York base, C'mon C'mon's protagonist seeks thoughts about life, hopes, dreams, the future and the world in general, but never in a Kids Say the Darndest Things-type fashion. As Phoenix's sensitive, pensive gaze conveys under the tender guidance of Beginners and 20th Century Women filmmaker Mike Mills, Johnny truly and gratefully hears what his young interviewees utter.
Phoenix is all gentle care, quiet understanding and rippling melancholy as Johnny. All naturalism and attentiveness as well, he's also firmly at his best, no matter what's inscribed on his Academy Award. Here, Phoenix is as phenomenal as he was in his career highlight to-date, aka the exceptional You Were Never Really Here, in a part that again has his character pushed out of his comfort zone by a child. C'mon C'mon's Johnny spends his days talking with kids, but that doesn't mean he's equipped to look after his nine-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman, The War of the Worlds) in Los Angeles when his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent) needs to assist her husband Paul (Scoot McNairy, A Quiet Place Part II) with his mental health. Johnny and Viv haven't spoken since their mother died a year earlier, and Johnny has previously overstepped when it comes to Paul — with the siblings' relationship so precarious that he barely knows Jesse — but volunteering to help is his immediate reflex.
As captured in soft, luxe, nostalgic shades of greyscale by always-remarkable cinematographer Robbie Ryan (see also: I, Daniel Blake, American Honey, The Favourite and Marriage Story), Johnny takes to his time with Jesse as any uncle suddenly thrust into a 24/7 caregiving role that doesn't exactly come naturally would. Jesse also reacts as expected, handling the situation as any bright and curious kid whose world swiftly changes, and who finds himself with a new and different role model, is going to. But C'mon C'mon is extraordinary not because its instantly familiar narrative sees Johnny and Jesse learn life lessons from each other, and their bond grow stronger the longer they spend in each other's company — but because this tremendously moving movie repeatedly surprises with its depth, insights, and lively sparks of both adult and childhood life.
It's styled to look like a memory, and appreciates how desperately parents and guardians want to create such happy recollections for kids, but C'mon C'mon feels unshakeably lived-in rather than wistful. It doesn't pine for times gone by; instead, the film recognises the moments that linger in the now. It spies how the collection of ordinary, everyday experiences that Johnny and Jesse cycle through all add up to something that's equally commonplace, universally relatable and special, too. Conveying that sentiment, but never by being sentimental, has long been one of Mills' great powers as a filmmaker. He makes pictures so alive with real emotion that they clearly belong to someone, and yet also resonate with everyone all at once. With C'mon C'mon, the writer/director draws upon his own time as a parent, after taking inspiration from his relationship with his father in Beginners, and from his connection to his mother and his own upbringing in 20th Century Women.
The conversations that the rumpled Johnny and precocious Jesse exchange might be exactly the kind that adults and children always have — the earnest talks that Johnny has with his interview subjects as well, which help place the movie's musings in a broader context — but that doesn't make them any less perceptive and memorable. The key to the film is the key to its central duo's blossoming bond, to Johnny's rapport with the kids on his podcast, and to everything that Phoenix as Arthur Fleck wanted and demanded: genuinely listening. C'mon C'mon builds wonderfully detailed and intricate character studies by doing just that with Johnny and Jesse — and, albeit in less screentime, with Viv. Trips around the US play like big adventures, including when Jesse keeps wanting to explore NY and laps up a New Orleans street parade, but the contents of late-night phone calls, the newly single Johnny's diary-like recorded dispatches about his days, Viv's maternal routine and Jesse's favourite play-acting game — where he pretends he's an orphan — frequently feel just as immense.
As C'mon C'mon observes and unfurls these textured slices of life, it also takes the act of listening as seriously as Johnny does. Mills has directed a gorgeous-looking film, any frame of which would make a postcard-perfect memory — its closeups are revelatory, its wide shots that place its characters in their surroundings while surveying the minutiae around them are transcendent — but his soundscape does just as much essential work. Viewers hear the hustle and bustle, the noise of the street, the silence that lingers indoors and the clattering chaos one small boy can incite. Jesse hears it, too, and soon becomes enamoured with listening through his uncle's headphones as Johnny records on-the-ground material for his podcast. The National's Bryce and Aaron Dessner also layer in a melodic and dreamy score that both sets and suits the reflective and warm-hearted mood, while the soundtrack's jumps between genres — opera, Lou Reed and Lee Scratch Perry included — are dynamic.
For all of Mills' outstanding choices with C'mon C'mon, a feature filled with them, the care and love he gives his characters and ushers out of his actors is his biggest feat. Phoenix's endlessly impressive work as a man both exhausted and rewarded by pseudo-parenthood is matched by Norman, who turns in a spontaneous and instinctive performance, and by the ever-reliable Hoffman as a woman constantly striving for her own space beyond her roles as a mother, partner and sister. Indeed, watching them together, and seeing their reactions and responses while talking to each other via phone, is as crucial as hearing every word spoken. Yes, C'mon C'mon listens devotedly, but it's just as committed to simply being in these characters' presence, soaking in all that comes with it, and finding the aching and affecting truth in every second.
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