Mike Mills’ movies often provide the feeling as if you’re receiving a long hug from a loved one, or maybe it’s the feeling as if you’re falling in love with your best friend. In his films, the familiar becomes momentous and the ordinary turns almost passionate; it’s like he’s telling us, through each film, that the things we’re looking for are so often right in front of us, if we’d only pay them the right kind of attention. His new film, C’mon C’mon — a giddily impatient title for a movie that is anything but — is all about that kind of attention and the discoveries that can come from it, about others and about ourselves. And if its rueful, midlife nostalgia doesn’t carry quite the same current of vibrant, urgent empathy of his previous films 20th Century Women or Beginners, it’s the small pebbles of wisdom it unearths that are still a pleasure to observe as they’re sent skimming across the surface of this delicate, compassionate film.
To be particular, it’s Johnny’s job to pay attention. As played by a soulful Joaquin Phoenix, he’s the ruminative, Ira Glass-esque creator of a radio show and his new story involves travelling the country to ask young people about their ideas of the future. Alone, later at night, in various anonymous hotel rooms, Johnny listens back to the tapes and adds musings of his own about these American lives, little fragments of commentary that amount to a snapshot of his state of mind. There’s a certain midlife weariness in him that is only underscored by the genuine pleasure he takes from his encounters with these exuberant teens and tweens, who can’t help but emit the optimism of youth even though their actual views — on climate change, politics, the sheer uselessness of adults — can be wryly pessimistic. Johnny has built a professional career in the image of his own interests and personality, rather than the other way around, and if there is the very definite sense that he — like most of Mills’ protagonists — comes from the kind of bohemian-leaning, well-educated, white-middle-class background that affords him such luxury, there’s no sense that Johnny, or Mills, is unaware of all that. Self-awareness without self-importance is one of the hallmarks of the filmmaker’s work, and it’s this quality along with a knack for performances that strip away the mawkishness in the inherently sentimental situations, and that keeps C’mon C’mon away from possible tweeness.
And such threats are often; the basis of the film’s minimal plot is the relationship between Johnny and his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), a precocious nine-year-old, with bright, considering eyes and a mop of unruly hair to rival his mop of unruly, untamed opinions. His mother, Johnny’s L.A.-based sister Viv (a terrific Gaby Hoffmann) has been a little estranged from New Yorker Johnny since the death of their mother, and since Johnny overstepped by offering well-meaning but unhelpful advice about Viv’s personal life. All of the conflicts in C’mon C’mon are like that — more made of regret than bitterness, they arise from goodhearted people with only the kindest of motives trying to be too nice to each other, trying to fix people in ways they don’t want, or need, to be fixed. When Jesse’s father, Viv’s bipolar partner Paul (Scoot McNairy) has a breakdown, Viv takes it on herself to help him through it: One of the strengths of Mills’ loose-limbed if still occasionally too neat screenplay, and of Hoffmann’s generous, understated performance, is the justice it does to the people who instinctively take on the duties of care for others, even at the cost of caring for themselves. And so Johnny, who is gently mending the sibling rift and staying with his sister, steps into the role of looking after Jesse, even to the point of bringing him back to New York when Viv needs more time for Paul.
Mills’ past films have fixated on parent/child relationships with a kind of dazzled wonderment at the immensely impressive people our parents probably were, if viewed from outside the prism of our own childhoods. This time, with Mills a father himself now, shifts the focus downward. Johnny, having the clearer perspective of an uncle coming to stand-in-parenthood at a later stage of the kid’s development, learns to admire just how much of a person Jesse is, even as he’s changing right before his eyes. And in Jesse, Mills creates an endearing oddball who is sometimes adorable and sometimes flat-out obnoxious, the way children are. One of his weirdest quirks is his habit of pretending to be a Victorian orphan on the run. Initially it alarms Johnny, but he learns, as Viv has, to accept it, and maybe even to understand it. Jesse isn’t ghoulishly envisioning his parents’ death or play-acting the hardships of some Oliver Twist fetish, he’s imagining the moment he can tell his story to a kindly stranger who’ll take him in. He isn’t acting a fantasy of being lost, but of being found; it’s not about being abandoned but about being chosen, and paid attention to, over and over again.
This isn’t the stuff of massive revelation; Mills’ core insight throughout his filmography remains the same in every film: We’re all screwed up to some degree, all constantly improvising, all doing the best we can with relatively few guidelines. And that’s not especially innovative or profound, perhaps, but each of the characters’ relationships and interactions crackle with an authenticity. And with this film those relationships butt up against the stirring gorgeousness of Robbie Ryan’s black-and-white photography and a soundtrack peppered with Debussy and Mozart, both of which lend an epic dimension to even the film’s most intimate moments. One shot, of Johnny and Jesse wanderingly scanning the beach as a plane ascends in the background through the filtered layers of palm trees, houses, skyscrapers and smoggy air as Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s glistening score swells, is as magical and romantic a vision of Los Angeles as anything in recent years.
Mills often favors a blend of the fanciful and the mundane, but in C’mon C’mon he scales it back: There’s no equivalent here of Beginners‘ subtitled dog or kaleidoscopic collages. It’s much more lyrical-montage heavy. But as they move through grand monochrome landscapes, these are highly verbal people in a highly verbal film. Incidents play out only to be immediately narrativized and talked about, in phone calls, whispered bedtime conversations, or recorded recollections — the time Jesse ate ice cream at night; the time he wandered off on the street. Spontaneous reactions are second-guessed aloud: “He asked me about relationships ending and I made it into a weird joke. Why did I do that?” murmurs Johnny. And even when none of the characters are speaking, there are snatches of text, often voiced-over, culled from an eclectic array of literary sources: Kirsten Johnson, L. Frank Baum, Claire A. Nivola, Jacqueline Rose.
It’s no wonder then, amid all the chatter and self-examination, that Jesse so enjoys using Johnny’s audio equipment, sweeping the microphone this way and that over beaches, in parks and on busy New Orleans streets. It’s one way to focus, to pull something small and precise out of the general cacophony of life, to clean it off and preserve it forever from the non-stop sprint of time. It’s one way to maintain a record of random little moments that will otherwise be quickly forgotten, but that, once saved, can describe a whole afternoon, or a whole week, or even a whole childhood. It takes a strong directorial hand for a film to have a general formlessness and still feel enrapturing as C’mon C’mon does in its final stretch — and Mike Mills shows such a hand. And it also takes one to have the ability to convey multiple, almost contradictory feelings at once, such as this film does; feeling both poised and frenetic, contemplative and active, heartily sentimental and bitterly fierce, exactingly composed and wildly unprompted. Although C’mon C’mon might initially seem so loose and wandering to the point it can seem like it’s not about anything, but in the end we realize, in a sudden punch of emotion, that it’s delivered that way because, just like a promise made as the movie fades, it wants to remind us of everything. Tenderly introspective and absorbingly wandering, C’mon C’mon is a film that feels both intensively intimate and expansively grand, one with countless lyrical touches unloading pounds of regret and yearning.
C’mon C’mon is playing in Select Theaters