Film Critic Amelia Neath reviews C’mon C’mon, praising how it invokes the feeling of being read a bedtime story
Sometimes the simplest stories can teach us the deepest lessons; this is the conclusion that many will draw from Mike Mills’ new film C’mon C’mon. The plot follows a recently single middle-aged man named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his eight-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) as they are thrown into living together. This is due to Johnny’s sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) leaving to go look after Jesse’s dad Paul (Scoot McNairy) after a serious bipolar episode. The plot’s absence of dramatic turns-of-events or action-packed scenes leaves an opening for the immense study of emotions between all the characters, but especially Johnny and Jesse. Without a major climax or a strong conclusion to the story, it may baffle viewers, yet it seems this is what Mills wanted to achieve. There is not much in telling what the film is about; it is more what it means. Every person who watches this film will identify with a different character and their emotions and relate it to their own lives. The relatability of this film is because it is so ordinary. This is what makes C’mon C’mon charming; the meaning of the story is meant to be up to the viewer. The relaxed storytelling of unconditional love, alongside the problems that are faced in the human condition: maturity, life, death, time, are reflected in Johnny and Jesse’s story to create a juxtaposing tone to the film: ‘sweet melancholy,’ as Mills describes it himself.
Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny was a perfect choice because of his way of conveying emotions of loss, love and anger that feels so genuine. Coming off from the success of Joker (2019), C’mon C’mon explores the more human side of Phoenix’s ability to portray an excellent character. As for Woody Norman who plays Jesse, his ability to act with such deep emotive scenes makes him a stand-out performer. Child actors are always taken with a pinch of salt, they can lay it on thick with over-acting, yet there was nothing wrong with Norman’s raw and compelling capture of Jesse.
The structure of the film was unique. Switching between the main plot line and interviews by Johnny with kids around America, answering questions about the future, climate change, adulthood and their own lives. While the interviews do not have a direct connection with the plot, they somehow reflect the emotions and feelings from the last scene. All the interviews were not scripted, so this hybrid of documentary and fictional storytelling has bred a film that reveals truths and anxieties in our current world.
The colour palette for C’mon C’mon is entirely black and white. This is the most striking aspect of the film, as it changes the tone and themes completely, providing a dreamlike perception of a film you may not get with colour. Taking away the colour from the film also removes the audience from reality. As mentioned, this film feels like it is meant to be reflected upon with your own life experiences, just like if you were to study a painting or poetry. The film becomes a drawing, like one from a children’s storybook. This is also acknowledged with Johnny reading storybooks to Jesse, such as Star Child by Claire A. Nivola. Like Johnny’s tearful reaction to the children’s book, similar emotions can be drawn out from the softness of this film. The soundtrack by Bryce and Aaron Dessner paired with the black and white palette invites a sense of warmth and familiarity. With this effect, the audience does not have to think too hard about the story, but just to feel it, just like a child would feel when being read a bedtime story. Certain themes in the interviews, such as ‘the world being on fire’, are contrasted with little moments of love between Johnny and Jesse, like reading together. The message of this may be that there are still some little works of art amongst our horrific everchanging world.
On a fundamental level, this film is a story of unconditional love between two people who both have ongoing problems in their lives. What makes C’mon C’mon special is the way the story is set up. Through the real interviews and moments of audience reflection, it becomes meaningful to someone in their own way.
C’mon C’mon is out now in select cinemas
For more recent releases, check out these Redbrick Film articles: