Directed by Mike Mills and starring Joaquin Phoenix. 108 minutes. Opens Friday (November 26) in theatres
In C’mon C’mon, a tender but ornamental drama, nuanced performances that worm their way into our emotions come gift-wrapped in black-and-white cinematography and other cinephile gimmicks that gesture toward something more. And some of those gestures—which position people of colour as props in a white family drama—can get icky.
Though he certainly doesn’t need the acclaim so soon after playing the Joker, Joaquin Phoenix will be the latest beneficiary of that attention. He plays an uncle who steps up as pinch-hitter parent in C’mon C’mon, a film that strives to be a sort of Manchester By The Sea by way of Noah Baumbach.
Phoenix’s Johnny is a New York City-based audio producer who interviews people across the States, walking around with a shotgun mic capturing voices, street noise and the general atmosphere of today. He interrupts work to help out his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) in Los Angeles, while she heads to Oakland to help her mentally fragile husband Paul (Scoot McNairy). The latter, who goes in and out of institutions, is in crisis, suffering from an episode that the family has seen before. While Viv is getting Paul the help he needs, it falls on Johnny to take care of Viv’s gentle, precocious and quietly hurting son Jesse (incredible newcomer Woody Norman).
Much of C’mon C’mon is about Johnny receiving a crash course in 21st-century psychologist-vetted parenting while dealing with a child who has been through a lot. Throughout the movie we watch Johnny in conversation with Jesse, trying to gently tap into his wavelengths like someone carefully turning a rotary radio dial for a clear channel. This is a film that is about listening to people’s pain and needs, whether it’s a child that feels like they’re shouldering the weight of the world or a man going through a mental health crisis while being spoken down to by medical staff.
Perhaps in response to the George Floyd murder, subsequent conversations about anti-Black racism and how trauma takes a toll on Black children, Mills casts his net wider, searching beyond his intimate white family drama for some current significance. In between his one-one-one sessions with Jesse, Johnny travels to Detroit and New Orleans for his radio documentary, interviewing different Black and brown and otherwise marginalized kids about how they are coping with the various traumas in their lives.
The geography of it all is fascinating. The family drama between Johnny, Jesse and Viv is a New York-L.A. story. These characters come down from those coastal ivory towers to listen to people in prominently Black areas: Detroit and New Orleans, and the father in Oakland. Mills is obviously aware of the class distinctions between his characters and the kind of social currency one has over the other. At a certain point, a character quotes filmmaker Kirsten Johnston discussing the extractive nature of documentary filmmaking and the power the artist is given when they distribute and position the voices of those they interview. That cognizance makes whatever it is he’s doing not so easy to dismiss.
There’s a way to read this film as a plea for white parents to be sensitive and listen to what marginalized kids are feeling in the same way that they would their own. But that seems disingenuous when C’mon C’mon is only emotionally invested in Jesse. The other way to read this: C’mon C’mon uses marginalized kids to make a story about privileged white people and their problems seem relevant.