M, 110 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
The modest but impressive oeuvre of American filmmaker Mike Mills often handles the small things in life best, the things that for many come to matter most. It speaks sotto voce, from a filmmaker who has made beguiling work like the recent 20th Century Women and Beginners of a decade ago.
In its thematic focus, C’mon C’mon is no different. Although there is an opening montage of young people growing up in the post-industrial cityscapes of Detroit, fielding questions about how they see the future. How they imagine it, what nature and the cities will be like, whether families will be the same, and how they themselves will be. And what will make them angry or happy. The lines these adults of the future have, from the northern American city that was the heartland of vehicle manufacturing and Motown soul, give you pause for thought. Director Mills wrote the screenplay.
To ask the questions that we all wonder about, Mills has cast the extraordinary actor Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio producer and journalist working in New York City, who is travelling the country to find out what American youth think and feel.
Filming in B+W is surely one of the best ways to sculpt faces and capture expression on screen
To encourage the audience to hang around while this is happening, he has engaged the services of the wonderful Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite, Marriage Story), who had a big hand in making the Nick Cave documentary Idiot Prayer so moving. C’mon C’mon is like a family album with special moments captured in lustrous black and white. Surely monochrome is one of the best ways to sculpt faces and capture expressions in portraiture on screen? Here it creates image after image that make you reluctant to rush on to the next.
Besides the visuals, there is a lot to enjoy in the lovely score combining original music by Aaron and Bryce Dessner with other tracks, including soul and the classics. Beautiful sounds to be contemplative to, within the spaces that the film invites you into think things over. Snippets of the interviews with young people from across the US, from New Orleans to Detroit and from LA to NY, are watched then re-inserted when revisited after the shoot.
Johnny is at work in Detroit when his sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), rings and they speak for the first time in the year since their mother died. Since that traumatic event, when the siblings were also fighting about the palliative care, they have returned to their lives at opposite ends of the country.
Johnny agrees to fly LA to look after his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (young British actor Woody Norman), who becomes sound recordist on Johnny’s travels. In his role as a precocious kid in need of mentorship, Norman steals the screen, vying with Phoenix for the star role. The director Mills has said in interview that he and Phoenix were always waiting for Norman to take the lead, and in his way, Norman does. What is that old adage about never working with children or animals?
He does baddie, shambolic and dissolute roles better than most, and as a father figure may make us laugh, but it works here a treat
Jesse, an only child, is dealing with his dad having bipolar issues and living away from the family, in Oakland. The mental health of Paul (Scoot McNairy) has been a constant source of distraction for Jesse’s mother and it has cast a shadow over their son’s young life. McNairy as father Paul makes his presence felt in a small role.
C’mon, the contraction of ‘come on’ that is the title of the film, has such a variety of different meanings that could be applied here, but ‘you can do it’ and ‘get real’ give you a good idea of what the film is on about. The use of language in everyday life is actually one of the film’s subtle subtexts, a critique of the ubiquitous phrase ‘I’m fine’, and its use as a cover for genuine emotion.
Director Mills, now a father himself, has observed that as a parent you are walking your kid into the public space and off into the future. The very idea of Phoenix – Can we ever forget I’m Still Here? – who does baddie, shambolic and dissolute roles better than most, as a father figure may make some of us laugh, but it works here a treat.