Mike Mills has a lot to say about family. His 2016 feature “20th Century Women” is a semi-autobiographical love letter to motherhood and adolescence, and it is a beloved staple of the indie film canon. His newest film, “C’mon C’mon,” hits many of the same beats. It’s also a warm, quiet, intimate story about family, with a screenplay that’s likely to earn him another Oscar nomination. However, the relationship at the heart of the film is so effective because performances from Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) and Woody Norman (“The Small Hand”) manage to make it feel like a revelation.
In “C’mon C’mon,” Johnny (Phoenix) is a journalist working on a series of interviews with children across the country, asking them about themselves and what they envision for the future — both their future, the planet’s future and society at large’s future. While in Detroit (an unexpected but more than welcome sight to see on screen; look out for loving shots of the Heidelberg Project and aerial shots featuring the GM Renaissance Center and Comerica Park), Johnny’s estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann, “Transparent”) asks him to come to Los Angeles to take care of her precocious nine-year-old son, Jesse (Norman). Although initially reluctant, Johnny agrees. The rest of the film plays out across New York City and New Orleans as Johnny and Jesse travel together and bond in the process.
Despite an insistent title, “C’mon C’mon” takes its time. It moves slowly but manages to not feel meandering, allowing the dynamic between Johnny and Jesse to grow organically. Everything about the film is pared down to focus on this relationship; its black-and-white nature makes everything feel instantly simpler, and the wistful, synthy score by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National is a constant, minimalist underline. It’s clear that the film wants its audiences to pay close attention to the performances at its core and the messages it’s trying to impart about parenting and childhood.
These messages are not new by any means — parenting is hard, kids are difficult, sometimes you can hate them as much as you love them — and like many indie movies that try to tackle big existential ideas, the film struggles most when it is telling rather than showing (during a phone call with his sister, Johnny literally says “being a parent is hard”).
Luckily, the showing is done so well: Johnny and Jesse’s frustration, joy, anger, playfulness, impatience and love for each other are so perfectly played by Phoenix and Norman. They can cycle through all of that and more within seconds, reflecting perfectly the natures of being a child and being a parent, the sometimes unbridgeable gap between the two and the things both have to do to meet in the middle.
When considered separately, Phoenix’s performance is strong, but the film easily belongs to Norman. He lives through Jesse’s many eccentricities as if they are completely his own. He reminds us that kids are both incredibly oblivious but also smarter and more attentive than we think. Jesse is just as loud as the next kid, but he’s also an observer. He spends much of his time watching, internalizing, forming his own opinions and wanting to speak and be heard. And even Johnny, who talks to kids for a living, has to learn how to listen. By depicting this learning curve alongside the documentary-esque interviews of real kids, the most subtle and important lessons that Mills is trying to teach become apparent: Children are wiser than adults ever want to give them credit for, and children will listen.
“C’mon C’mon” and warm hugs share the same essence. Big-hearted, tender and compassionate, it’s easily one of the best movies of the year thanks to knockout central performances and an admirable patience with and love for its subjects.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.